When Palestinian cycling champion Alaa al-Daly rode to the eastern edges of the Gaza Strip earlier this year to join a demonstration against a decade-long Israeli blockade, he had no idea it would end with the loss of his leg and career.
The 21-year-old athlete had finished his training early on March 30 and cycled over to join thousands in a march along the Israeli-occupied border zone.
Gaza is just 6 kilometers wide at its narrowest and 11 km at its widest. To the west is the Mediterranean Sea, to the east is a 50 km border with Israel. Its only other neighbor, Egypt, has a peace treaty with Israel and severely restricts the movement of people and goods through the southern Rafah crossing.
The near-total blockade hampers even the most basic infrastructure repairs, meaning sewage, water and electrical systems range from decrepit to non-functioning. In effect, Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants have lived in an open-air prison since the Islamist movement Hamas took control of the strip in 2007 after winning legislative elections a year earlier.
Daly says the Israeli authorities on multiple occasions have prevented him from traveling abroad to compete in cycling competitions, and so a central demand of the “Great March of Return” – an end to the blockade – resonated with him.
The 2018 Asia Games were coming up in August in Jakarta, and Daly was eager to represent his people.
On that first day of the protests, he recounted, “I was on my bike, about 250 meters from the barbed wire, when suddenly a bullet from an Israeli sniper stationed at the border hit my right leg.”
The gunshot was only the first shock for Daly.
In the span of eight days following the injury, doctors performed eight operations on Daly in an attempt to save his leg. Finally, they found themselves with no choice but to amputate it, shattering the cyclist’s hopes to ever return to his beloved sport, which he had been perfecting since childhood.
Below the belt
The global medical charity Doctors without Borders (MSF) identified a trend of Israeli forces using live ammunition to aim at the lower limbs of protesters during the March of Return demonstrations.
“The vast majority of the 3,117 patients treated by MSF between 30 March and 31 October – out of the total 5,866 the Ministry of Health says have been injured by live fire – had been shot in the leg,” it said.
Gaza’s healthcare system, crippled by the longstanding blockade and overwhelmed by the number of people in need of treatment, is not up to the task. “
This many patients would overstretch the best healthcare systems in the world,” said Marie-Elisabeth Ingres, MSF’s local head of mission.
The report further warned that these patients are now at risk of infection, amputation, and even death if they are not allowed outside Gaza for treatment. MSF has urged Israeli and Palestinian authorities to facilitate the work of healthcare providers in Gaza and to allow for evacuations of critical cases for treatment abroad.
Israel has accused Palestinian militants of using the protests as cover to attempt to infiltrate its territory.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, responding to the killing of 60 demonstrators in a single day in May, said that some demonstrators have thrown Molotov cocktails at Israeli troops. He insisted that this did not justify the lethal use of force against thousands of people.
Referring to the Gaza population, Zeid said, “They are, in essence, caged in a toxic slum from birth to death; deprived of dignity; dehumanized by the Israeli authorities to such a point it appears officials do not even consider that these men and women have a right, as well as every reason, to protest.”
Loss of breadwinners
Hossam al-Dakhny, 32, was also among the thousands of Gazans who sustained a debilitating injury during the marches. He took a bullet to his leg, which had to be amputated after local hospitals were unable to treat his broken nerves and veins.
Dakhny, who is married and provides for a family of five, has lost his livelihood as a driver of a small merchandise truck. Months later, his condition remains precarious. He continues to go to the hospital for treatment and is undergoing physiotherapy in preparation for a prosthetic leg.
For now, Dakhny feels helpless, unable to provide basic necessities for his family, and requiring assistance to move.
The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza says Dakhny and Daly the cyclist are among at least 101 protesters who have had to undergo amputation of a limb as a result of bullet wounds at the border marches this year.
Ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qodra tells Asia Times dozens of amputees have been deprived of proper rehabilitation treatment because hospitals were forced to empty beds weekly to prepare for more wounded.
The March of Return protests died down in October, and in November a truce was announced between Israel and Hamas. But the situation in the Strip has yet to improve.
Qodra says Health Ministry facilities are now working to the best of their abilities to provide treatment and rehabilitation to patients receiving prosthetic limbs, a three- to six-month effort, and psychological support to help amputees accept their new reality.
Several dozen patients have been able to secure treatment abroad, whether through the Health Ministry or international NGOs, the ministry said. Others continue to be refused passage out, whether by the Israeli or Egyptian authorities.
On Tuesday, a Qatari diplomat said Israel had rejected a proposal for the construction of an airport for Gaza with flights going through Doha.