AP PHOTOS: In Gaza, bodybuilding competition provides escape

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              In this Friday, Oct. 26, 2018 photo, a Palestinian bodybuilder prepares himself before giving a performance during a local bodybuilding competition, in Gaza City. While thousands of Palestinians gather at the border with Israel for a new weekly protest on a recent Friday, hundreds of others packed a sports hall in Gaza City for a different type of gathering -- a bodybuilding competition. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — As thousands of Palestinians gathered at the border with Israel for a new weekly protest on a recent Friday, hundreds of others packed a sports hall in Gaza City for a different type of gathering — a bodybuilding competition.

Glistening with oil and toned to perfection, young men with buff bodies lined the stage, flexing their muscles and posing for the judges at a contest organized by the Palestinian Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation.

“I tried despite the difficulties and tragic circumstances, whether social or economic, to continue with this sport until I achieved my goal,” said Hamdi Wadi, who was working out backstage to pump up his muscles before appearing before the jury.

Gaza’s 2 million residents are often preoccupied with other priorities as the territory has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade for more than a decade. Poverty, joblessness, polluted water, chronic power outages and limited freedom of movement characterize life in Gaza.

Despite those obstacles and a lack of adequate training facilities, about 70 vigorous youths participated in the tournament after following a strict diet and training hard.

In contrast to similar events elsewhere in the world, contestants wear modest long shorts consistent with Islamic law and Gaza’s mostly conservative society.

In the end, Abdallah Al-Hour, 20, was crowned the winner in front of his home crowd and hoisted on the shoulders of his supporters in the packed, all-male gymnasium.

The coastal enclave is run by the militant Islamic Hamas group, which overran President Mahmoud Abbas’ forces in 2007 and ousted his relatively secular Fatah party. Abbas now governs parts of the West Bank.

For seven months, Hamas has staged deadly protests along the perimeter fence with Israel, demanding an end to the blockade, which prevents most Gazans from leaving their tiny territory.

Coach Ammar Abu Karsh said sportsmen in Gaza perform at “impressive levels,” but they can’t easily travel for international contests.

Rafat Shaheen of the bodybuilding association said he hopes contestants can one day compete abroad and “raise the Palestinian flag in international and Arab forums.”

Here’s a gallery of images from Khalil Amra.