GAZA, June 28 (Xinhua) -- As soon as it gets dark these days in the impoverished Gaza Strip, cafes are getting overcrowded with Palestinian fans of the European Football Championship trying to forget the daily stress due to hard living conditions, an ongoing Israeli siege and an internal division between Gaza and the West Bank.
In the cafes, most of which are located on the seaside of the coastal enclave, the football fans watch the matches on big LCD screens, feeling like they are actually in the stadium. Drinking soft drinks with refreshments, the crowd burst screams from time to time, making the seaside area sound like an international soccer stadium.
The cafe owners have ornamented their shops with attractive colorful lights and flags of the competing European countries. Abu Mustafa, owner of a cafe in the Shatti (Beach) refugee camp in western Gaza City, said while preparing and rearranging seats and tables in the shop before the game between Spain and Portugal on Wednesday night that "the hard situation in Gaza obliges youths to come and watch soccer."
"The hard living situation, the Israeli siege imposed on Gaza and the internal division between Fatah and Hamas are urging Gaza young men to escape from this reality and come to watch the professional soccer matches of Europe," the man said.
According to Mustafa, most of the young men who came to his cafe are not "serious" soccer fans, "but they come to join their friends and make change."
However, he said the football event did help his shop "flourish economically."
As Euro 2012 is reaching its final stage, the number of Gazans going to cafes for game-watching is increasing, many to al-Omda Cafe on the seaside. Head of watermen in the cafe, Mahmoud, said all the tables have been booked before the match between Italy and Germany on Thursday night.
Mahmoud said he has hired 12 part-time watermen to work during the championship and hanged on the walls six large LCD screens to make sure that all his customers can enjoy a clear view of the matches.
Cafes are the most popular places for Gazans in summer evenings, especially when the blackout hours are extended due to a fuel shortage. With the operation of its only power plant being affected by the fuel shortage, time of power cutoff in the coastal enclave, with a population of over 1.5 million, has reached 12 hours each day.
Mohamed Sa'd, a 25-year-old Gaza resident, said he and his friends have prepared a timetable in order to watch as many games as possible between long blackouts. They have satellite receivers at their homes, and sometimes use the Internet to watch sports channels with no pay. However, he prefers to watch games in cafes that have electric generators.
"I feel like attending the match live in a stadium when I watch it in a cafe," said Sa'd, a fan of the Spanish team who always wears a T-shirt of this team.
"My dream is to travel one day with my friends to any country in the world, mainly to Europe, to watch the matches live there, but as it is clear that our economic situation is not enabling us to travel, due to traveling restrictions and the high cost of travelling," he said.
Abu Sa'eed, owner of a satellite receiver shop in Gaza city, told Xinhua that "the number of people buying receivers is growing and increasing." However, some poor families can not afford to subscribe for encrypted satellite channels.
Local television stations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are airing the matches for free, and officials at these TV stations said they did so to enable everyone, rich or poor, to watch the matches. "Sport is for everyone. Doesn't matter for poor or rich," they said.
Ibrahim, a 26-year-old Gaza resident, said he and his friends watch the games just to kill time, as there are a high unemployment rate as well as a lack of places for entertainment in Gaza.
Even the recent violent escalation between Gaza militants and Israel that killed 15 Palestinians and wounded some 70 did not prevent the soccer fans from going to cafes to watch the games until late night.
Ghasan Bal'awi, a Palestinian football coach who lives in Gaza, said European football games are popular with Gaza residents. " Despite difficulties to follow the current championship, people do their best to watch in order to change their reality," he said.