People with disabilities not spared by Israel’s war machine on Gaza Strip

Bombs, lack of electricity and roads damaged by Israeli offensive make life impossible for disabled people in Gaza.

A Palestinian on a wheelchair passes by ruins of buildings destroyed in Israeli attacks, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian on a wheelchair passes by ruins of buildings destroyed in Israeli attacks, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, October 9, 2023 [Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters]

Gaza Strip – Heba Abu Jazar cannot hear the sound of the bombs exploding, but she can feel their intensity deeply.

The 28-year-old, along with her two brothers, was born deaf, but the magnitude of the powerful blasts can be seen and felt in the vibrations of the doors and windows in their home in the southern city of Rafah, close to the border between Gaza and Egypt.

“Everywhere in our region, there are explosions,” she told Al Jazeera. “The forcefulness is very painful, and I can feel the house shaking violently with every air attack.”

The lives of the Gaza Strip’s 2.3 million residents have been completely upended since Israel began its relentless bombardment of the besieged territory on October 7, following an unprecedented attack by Hamas on army outposts and surrounding towns in Israel which killed more than 1,400 people.

Since then, nearly 7,300 Palestinians have been killed, the majority of them women and children. Thousands of buildings across Gaza have been destroyed and more than one million people have been displaced in the territory, which has been largely deprived of medicine, water, food and other basic supplies on the orders of the Israeli government.

Heba’s life has also changed drastically, having worked hard to integrate herself into society. Over the past year, she has developed her skills through a graphic design course, taken up photography and participated in various women’s seminars.

“I began to feel that I can contribute to society, and my circle of friends expanded to both men and women,” she said. “But this war, with its continuous bombings, has not stopped for a moment.”

Access to the internet is rare – a few minutes a day – since Israel bombed the communications tower in the first week of the war. Heba uses that precious time to check in on her friends, before sitting with her brothers, as her mother informs them of what is happening around them.

During Israel’s May 2021 offensive on Gaza, Heba’s sister was injured when their neighbour’s house was bombed, something Heba fears will happen again to her family.

“I thank God that my parents are not deaf, so they can tell us whether we are safe or in danger and save us from death,” she said.

Palestinians search the rubble of a building following overnight Israeli strikes on the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians search the rubble of a building following overnight Israeli air raids on the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on October 25, 2023 [Mohammed Abed/AFP]

In 2022, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights said the number of Palestinians with disabilities in the occupied territories was about 93,000, constituting 2.1 percent of the total population. Some 52 percent of that number, or 48,360, live in the Gaza Strip, while the rest reside in the occupied West Bank.

Human Rights Watch said, under the Israeli offensives on the territory, people with disabilities remain among the most affected.

Furthermore, the 17-year siege on the Gaza Strip by Israel and Egypt has led to heavy restrictions on movement and has curbed access to assistive devices and healthcare for people with disabilities. Chronic power outages compromise the rights and freedoms of these vulnerable people of society, who rely heavily on electric equipment to move around, such as elevators and mobility scooters, and light to use sign language with others.

‘Without wars, Gaza is a beautiful place’

In 2019, the first beach for people with disabilities was inaugurated to the west of Gaza City. Called Muwa’imah Beach, the place holds special memories for Suha Maqat, who has a mobility impairment and uses crutches to get around.

“Each week, I’d meet my friends and teammates at the sports club and train for two hours, playing basketball in wheelchairs,” the 34-year-old from Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood said.

“We’d then go to Muwa’imah Beach, and spend time by the sea, chatting and whiling away the hours. Life was beautiful back then. I always said that without wars, Gaza is a beautiful place.”

Suha said she likes to go out frequently as she refuses to see her disability as an impairment and does not like being stuck indoors between four walls.

But now, she has no choice but to remain in her house. In fact, she refuses to leave it.

“If I die, I’ll die in my own home,” she said. “Where would I go? We don’t know anyone in the southern Gaza Strip and during war, everyone is looking out for themselves and can barely take into consideration the fate of the people around them.”

Disabled women in wheelchairs play basketball in a covered gymnasium in Gaza City
Disabled women in wheelchairs play basketball in a covered gymnasium in Gaza City on August 16, 2023 [Mahmud Hams/AFP]

During the last war in 2021, Israeli warplanes targeted a building next to Suha’s home, which knocked her to the floor. Unable to move, she had to wait for her neighbours to carry her out, which she swore would not happen again.

“I do not want that scene of torment when I fell to the ground to be repeated again when everyone was trying to escape from the warplane’s missiles,” she said.

She dismissed the Israeli military’s repeated orders to the Palestinians in northern Gaza to head south.

“Israel doesn’t care about civilians,” Suha said. “They only care about death and destruction. I’ve lived through five wars, but this by far has been the worst of them all.”

‘Israel and its wars create more disabled people’

The devastation wreaked by Israel over the past 19 days has changed much of the Gaza Strip’s landmarks, with entire neighbourhoods flattened and main roads destroyed. Both Suha and her friend, Rabab Nofal, wonder how even an able-bodied person is expected to move around, let alone one with a disability.

“Before the war, we had difficulties going to most places because the streets are not good enough or equipped for wheelchair users like myself,” Rabab said. “But I could still put my three-year-old child in my lap and go to the stores to buy things. Now, how can we move?”

According to the Gaza government’s media office, Israel has bombed the Gaza Strip with more than 12,000 tonnes of explosives, which is equivalent to the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

This would mean that, on average, 33 tonnes of bombs were dropped per square kilometre, in one of the most densely populated areas of the world which is 41km long and 10km wide (25 miles by 6 miles).

Rabab sighed, thinking back to her “lovely routine” before the war, which comprised mainly of going to the beach and finishing some embroidery with the waves gently lapping the shore.

“Now the sounds of missiles make it impossible for us to move from our homes,” she said. “Israel and its wars greatly oppress people with disabilities and create more disabled people – those who have lost their limbs to the bombardment.”

A Palestinian amputee leans on crutches next to prosthetic limbs lined up along a wall while waiting for treatment at the Qatar-funded Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani rehabilitation centre in Gaza City
A Palestinian man leans on crutches next to prosthetic limbs lined up along a wall while waiting for treatment at the Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani rehabilitation centre in Gaza City on March 14, 2021 [Mahmud Hams/AFP]

‘No future’ for Palestine’s children

Another Palestinian who has refused to leave his home in Gaza City even after it was destroyed in an Israeli air attack is Mahmoud Abu Namous, who has a hearing disability.

“This is the second time my home got destroyed,” the 33-year-old said. “Last time, it was in 2021, when my wife was pregnant with our daughter, Fatima. I was afraid I would lose them both.”

Mahmoud said it was not in his nature to complain about life, and that he had always been accepting of his disability. He has always advocated for sign language to be used at events, to improve communication with others.

“Sign language is useful during the war so we can know what is going on”, he said. “In previous wars, I would message my friends on a Facebook group, but in this war, communication with everyone is cut off. There’s no electricity and no internet.”

He dreamed of giving Fatima a life that she deserves, and not being homeless without a roof over her head.

Mahmoud has rejected the idea of having more children, saying that the more than 3,000 children killed by Israel in this war so far shows it is impossible for parents to provide a decent future for their children. He says he wonders if there will even be one.

“It is enough that I have this child of mine,” he said. “I will try to protect her from the occupation as much as possible. We love children, but Israel hates them.”

Source: Al Jazeera