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Palestinian women take part in a baseball training session in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip March 19, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

(reuters_tickers)

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - Tossing around tennis balls and swinging makeshift bats, the Palestinian women practising on a soccer field are the vanguard of a sport new to the Gaza Strip - baseball.

Their coach, Mahmoud Tafesh, is introducing the game to the enclave and eventually hopes to form a national team to compete in Asian baseball championships.

Tafesh, who played for the Palestine national soccer team for 16 years, trained as a baseball coach in Egypt. He has recruited 40 women and 20 men, many of them university students, to learn the sport in facilities he rents at his own expense.

"We have received no financial support from anyone. I buy the balls and I make the bats," Tafesh told Reuters.

But Tafesh has received approval from Gaza's Ministry of Youth and Sport to establish the first Palestinian Federation for Baseball and Softball, and he hopes to hold try-outs later this year for a five-team league.

On the soccer field, women in traditional headscarves lobbed balls to batters whose enthusiasm made up for their lack of a proper stance or grip in taking their swings.

"They know the rules now and they need to practise the game more and more," Tafesh said. "They are now good at throwing the ball and at catching it."

Valentina al-Shaer, a 21-year-old student, said she has fielded criticism on social media in conservative Gaza for her sports activities.

"Some said that as girls you should be careful not to go to hell. Others said that girls should stay at home," Shaer said.

Tafesh said he first became interested in baseball after seeing the sport in American movies. He also watches games on YouTube.

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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