The water looks crystal blue, with no trace of sewage, the yellow sand is clean and the smell in the air is salty and pleasant, giving beachgoers in Gaza their first experience in years of clean and safe beaches.

Untreated sewage has flowed directly into the waters off Gaza for years, causing an environmental disaster that has ruined one of the few affordable opportunities for swimming available to people locked into the narrow coastal strip.

This season has been different, as internationally-funded sewage treating facilities across the coastal enclave have stepped up their operations, reducing pollution to its lowest rates in many years, environment officials said.

“We couldn’t come before because the sea was polluted and if we did, our children used to come back home with viruses and skin diseases,” said Sahar Abu Bashir, 52.

“Today the area is clean and the sea is clean. We felt as if we were in another country,” the mother of four told Reuters.

This week, the long sandy beach looked almost empty of red flags warning beachgoers against swimming because of the dozens of millions of cubic meters of untreated sewage that used to pour into the ocean every day.

People sat round plastic tables at the water’s edge, while children played with inflatable rubber bathing rings. In some areas, horse owners gave their animals a cooling sea bath.

The Hamas-run Environment Quality and Water Authority said sewage dumped into the sea was now partially treated, making 65% of the beach safe and clean, with plans to expand it.

“The summer season in Gaza Strip will be relatively safe compared to previous years because of the noticeable improvement of the quality of seawater,” said Mohammad Mesleh, director of environmental resources.

Gaza, measuring 375 square kilometers (145 square miles) is home to 2.3 Palestinians, most of them can’t afford to travel as poverty and unemployment stand at around 50%, according to local and international records.

Citing security concerns with the Islamist group Hamas, which runs the territory, both Israel and Egypt maintain restrictions along their Gaza frontiers.

In Deir Al-Balah, in the southern Gaza Strip, people crowded a beachfront resort called “The Old Nights”, built on a hilltop looking down the beach.

Families dined inside colorful wooden structures, built to resemble natural colored hilltops in some Asia countries, said the owner, Rami Al-Naa’ouq.

His business is booming this season.

“When there is no pollution I will have many customers in my place. That helps me make up for the losses of innovating and getting the place ready for the new year,” he said.

(Writing by Nidal Almughrabi. Editing by Jane Merriman)





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