Gaza City – Tiny and overcrowded, Gaza is one of the least suited places for road cycling in the world. Yet that is where Alaa al-Dali, Palestine’s top cyclist, lives and trains. It is remarkable that an endurance sport like cycling has found a passionate base of devotees on streets potholed by bombs. The Gaza Strip is just 41km long and 12km at its widest, with an average of six people per square-metre.
“I used to train for four or five hours, 120km a day. We struggle because Gaza is so small, the longest road is about 35km: we ride it back and forth in order to train the daily session. My dream is to participate in international tournaments,” al-Dali tells Al Jazeera.
The cyclist rose up the rankings of the small Palestinian cycling scene, winning a gold medal at the National Cycling Championship in 2018. Even if athletes from Gaza are formally eligible for an exit permit, Alaa was never able to leave the strip: “We were invited many times to compete abroad but we can’t travel because of international relations between Gaza and other countries.
“Egypt closed the border because of conflict between Hamas and the Egyptian president. Israel has been refusing all our applications to travel outside Gaza. If you get refused many times you may be banned forever from entering Israel, and that is the worst nightmare for athletes in Gaza. We are trying to do sport, they restrain us with politics,” al-Dali says.
The act of racing internationally can transcend the sporting significance of the event itself, especially when an athlete comes from a hotly disputed territory in the Middle East. “For many athletes, raising the Palestinian flag in international competitions is a form of peaceful resistance,” Mohammed el-Arabi, Palestinian Paralympic Committee member, tells Al Jazeera.
When al-Dali qualified for the 2018 Asian Games, he inevitably feared he would lose this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because of border retaliations. Hence, he joined the first day of the March of Return protest at the fence with Israel to demand his right for a career as a national athlete.
That day changed his life forever.
On March 30, 2018, al-Dali went to the March of Return with his bike, wearing his cycling gear. An Israeli sniper shot him in his right leg as he stood alone watching the demonstration approximately 300 metres from the separation fence, according to a UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) report.
“The bullet [was] like a small grenade. It almost disintegrated the bone of my leg, 22cm of it. The muscle, arteries and veins were totally damaged. The doctor said he has never seen anything like it,” Alaa says.
Medical staff were surprised he had not suffered hypovolemic shock due to the severe loss of blood pressure. His heart kept pumping just enough to survive. After his permit to exit Gaza for healthcare was denied by Israeli authorities, al-Dali was told he would still die if his leg was not amputated above the knee.
But without a leg, he felt he would die anyway: “I begged the doctor to try his best before amputating it because my dreams as an athlete are tied up with these legs. I spent eight days in the operating theatre. Every day I had a surgery on my leg. I felt so much pain, and bullet’s fragments infected it all. I needed to make a choice; either the amputation or losing my life. After thinking a lot, I gave my consent to cut the leg. It was a very hard decision to make.”
Meanwhile, controversy was brewing as last year’s Giro d’Italia cycling race started in Israel shortly after his amputation. In the months that followed, al-Dali recalls trying to recover from trauma while many came to his door asking for interviews. At first, he let them in, hoping that publicity might help get his cycling career back on track in some way. Perhaps someone would reach out to help him travel for hi-tech prosthetics which cannot be produced in Gaza.
Little came from the flurry of headlines so al-Dali soon realised he had to go ahead with what he has. Less than three months after his injury, he announced his plans to become the first para-cyclist in Gaza.
If cycling is a niche sport in Gaza, para-cycling is definitely off the radar. However, three major wars in the last 10 years have sadly produced about 130,000 disabled people in the coastal enclave. It is noticeable as you walk on the street; nearly seven percent of Palestinians are disabled, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
I wasn't able to raise the Palestinian flag with two legs; I will do it with one leg. This is going to happen sooner or later.
Ironically, conflict has created the potential for a generation of parasport champions to emerge from Gaza, Paralympic official el-Arabi tells Al Jazeera. “Alaa [al-Dali] came and proposed we start a para-cycling federation in Gaza, the first in the Middle East. I replied that there are no cyclists, only you Alaa is trying to do para-cycling. But then I realised hundreds of people lost a leg in the past months. We could build a team around Alaa.”
Al-Dali’s first chance to debut as a para-athlete came early from the Asian Paralympic Committee (APC), which invited him to the Indonesian 2018 Asian Para Games held last October in Jakarta, just six months after his amputation. The organisers offered to take care of visas, racing permits and expenses but again the main problem was al-Dali’s own borders; the Egyptian one was closed and he did not apply for Israeli permission for fear of being blacklisted. Then in November, al-Dali and el-Arabi were invited to speak in France about athletes’ rights in the Gaza Strip but the French government did not grant them visas because of concerns that al-Dali would seek asylum in Europe.
All this while he has been rehabilitating on his bike at the Artificial Limbs and Polio Centre (ALPC) set up by the local government and the International Committee of the Red Cross. By February, al-Dali was able to walk with his new prosthetic leg, almost a year after the amputation.
Frustration is building as time runs out for setting up a para-cycling team in a place where bike imports are regulated by the blockade and competing abroad to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics is almost impossible. “The only chance,” reflects el-Arabi “is for Alaa [al-Dali] to receive a special invitation recognising that he is a newly-injured and he is a pilot to establish para-cycling in the Middle East.” It is not clear, however, whether an official invitation will be enough to allow him to travel to Tokyo.
Al-Dali has lost a leg but certainly not his dream. While this year’s Giro d’Italia showcases thrilling bike races through glorious landscapes, he continues pedalling with one leg, back and forth along the only flat road within the confines of Gaza.
“My friends and family told me I am a champion and I shall not surrender. My determination got even stronger than before to fulfil my passion. It is true that I wasn’t able to raise the Palestinian flag with two legs; I will do it with one leg. This is going to happen sooner or later.”
Flavia Cappellini tweets @FlaviaCapps