As the First Intifada petered out, tens of thousands of Palestinians bore its physical scars. Many suffered permanent disabilities, including spinal cord injuries – some caused after they were shot in the back or chest by Israeli soldiers. To address their needs, Paralympic sports began in Palestine more than two decades ago.
“Wheelchair basketball began in 1991 on a local level, and also table tennis,” Ehsan Idkaidek, secretary-general of the Palestinian Paralympic Committee (PPC), told Al Jazeera. “Then other sports followed, such as athletics. By 1993, we took a team to compete internationally for the first time, in Jordan, and later we competed in Iran, Lebanon and then in the UK in 1995.”
On September 28, 2000, Idkaidek joined the Palestinian team to travel to compete in Sydney: “We were on our way to Allenby Bridge [border crossing] when everything began to change.” That day marked the beginning of the Second Intifada. While in Sydney, the team secured Palestine’s first-ever Paralympics medal – a bronze in discus – but the Palestine they returned to one month later had changed immeasurably.
The Intifada brought competitive Paralympic sports to a halt in the West Bank, although some localised training continued whenever possible. Some level of competition continued in Gaza, where clubs were more centralised, but it took years for organisers to begin to rebuild a competitive network in the West Bank. Palestinian Paralympic teams, mostly comprised of Gaza-based athletes, ultimately participated in both the 2008 and 2012 Paralympic Games.
“We have still not recovered in the West Bank,” Idkaidek said. “Things are growing again but it is slow. There is no political will among the decision makers to create real change for people with disabilities. There is no adapted public transport for us, access to buildings and shops is often impossible, and sports is certainly not seen as a priority.”
He believes it will take time to rebuild participation levels in the West Bank, but says the PPC has the will to do so. Already, events have started to be hosted again in sports such as wheelchair basketball and table tennis, albeit sporadically. “We are working hard, but the impact will be slow without wider support.”