Gaza City – Palestine’s first-ever amputee football team was launched in Gaza City on Friday to coincide with International Day for People with Disabilities.
The Palestine Amputee Football Association national squad is supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The squad of 20 consists of young Palestinians who lost parts of their bodies, either in previous wars with Israel or in accidents.
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Players used crutches and prosthetic legs to play football as they trained at a stadium in Gaza City.
The team aims to participate in the Amputee Football World Cup scheduled to be held in Turkey next year.
My life has changed enormously
Ahmed Alkhodari, 23, lost his leg in March 2019 during the Great March of Return three years ago. Hundreds of Palestinians were killed, and tens of thousands were wounded in Israeli firing as they attempted to cross the fence demanding a return to towns and villages located inside Israel from where their ancestors were ethnically cleansed in 1948.
At least 156 of those who were wounded faced amputations.
Alkhodari told Al Jazeera he wants to participate in tournaments outside of the Palestinian enclave, home to nearly 2 million people, which has been under Israeli blockade for nearly 15 years, and that his inclusion in the national team has added “value to my life”.
He believes the team will succeed at international championships across the world. The team is looking to represent Palestine in the 2022 World Cup slated to be held in the Turkish city of Istanbul in March.
Ibrahim Madi, 30, expressed his enthusiasm for being part of the team.
“Being here means a lot to me. It compensated all mental and physical pain I suffered after I lost my leg,” he told Al Jazeera.
Madi recalled “the darkest days of his life” – the period after a bullet fired by Israeli soldiers hit his leg in 2018 during a border demonstration in Gaza.
“I spent 11 days in unbearable pain in hospital,” he recounted. “Doctors then decided to amputate my leg.”
The amputation severely affected Madi’s life until he learned about the amputees’ football team.
‘Positive story coming out of Gaza’
Simon Baker, the General Secretary of the European Amputee Football Federation, has been working with amputee players in Gaza for three years, helping them boost their skills and providing high-level coaching.
Baker, an amputee himself, first travelled to Gaza in 2019 to work on the amputee football project as a consultant with the ICRC. In the Gaza Strip, he has since trained 15 coaches, 12 referees, and 80 amputee players – from which 20 were chosen for the final squad unveiled on Friday.
“The project went through several stages in choosing the best 20 players to launch the national team,” Baker told Al Jazeera.
“We hope by the end of March, the national team will go to compete in the Asian Cup and this will qualify them to participate in the 2022 World Cup in Istanbul,” he said.
Baker wants people to respect the team. “We don’t want people to pity them and feel sorry for them because of the fact they live in Gaza. This is a happy and positive story coming out of Gaza.”
People with disabilities can be valuable members of society, he said.
This team ‘makes into history’
Suhair Zaqout, the spokesperson of the ICRC in Gaza, said this team “makes history” by being the first national Palestinian amputee football team.
Zaqout highlighted her organisation’s role in supporting people with disabilities, especially in the Gaza Strip that has witnessed conflicts and cycles of violence.
“We support the amputees’ sports as a window to achieve social and psychological integration,” she said.
Zaqout said ICRC supports five other sports for amputees in Gaza, including basketball, athletics, cycling and table tennis.
The Gaza Strip is home to some 1,600 amputees, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.