Nagham Abu Samra: Palestine karate champion, victim of Israel’s war on Gaza

Gaza’s beloved champion was in line to participate in the Olympics until an Israeli attack left her amputated and eventually took her life.

Nagham Abu Samra was expected to represent Palestine at the upcoming Olympic Games in Paris [Screengrab: Palestinian Karate Federation]

Deir el-Balah, Gaza – At 24, Nagham Abu Samra was already a sporting icon in Gaza.

She had not only earned a black belt in an inspiring karate career but also completed two degrees (bachelor’s and master’s) in physical education from the now-demolished Al-Aqsa University in Gaza.

In 2021, Nagham also launched her own sports centre in the besieged enclave, urging young girls in Gaza to take up sports, especially karate.

She was a role model for all girls studying physical education at the university, which now lies as a pile of rubble.

It was the only university in Gaza that provided this curriculum and she was keen to inspire young girls to take up sport.

In January, Nagham died in an Egyptian hospital, succumbing to her wounds sustained during an Israeli attack that also killed her sister Rosanne in December.

She had been in a coma after having been moved from Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir el-Balah, central Gaza, to the border with Egypt before being taken across it to a hospital in El Arish.

A hospital official in Gaza told Al Jazeera that Nagham was brought in with her right leg amputated and severe head injuries. Surgery was too risky given her situation and she was on life support, the official added.

“Her case was one of the most severe. We knew her survival chances were reducing by the day but we had to give it a try whatever the circumstances,” nurse Mohammad Yousef from Al-Aqsa Hospital in Gaza, told Al Jazeera.

“She was unconscious [the day she was brought into the hospital] and spent almost all her time like that, suffering and shaking immensely.

“We were very keen to help her as much as possible. The fact that she was a sports icon in Palestine and a former karate champion pushed us to work even more vigorously on her case. We knew she needed the utmost care which we showed complete readiness for.

“In the first three to four days she was at the hospital, her situation was improving. However, she started having high and unusual fever with chest inflammations.”

Medical travel permit came ‘too late’

Standing by her bedside in the hospital, the young athlete’s father Marwan called on sports fans across the world to help Nagham “stand on her own feet again”.

“I don’t usually look like this – Nagham’s condition has devastated me and I can’t bear to see her like this,” he said, his voice breaking with the pain of seeing his daughter suffer.

Amid its war on Gaza that has killed nearly 30,000 people and wounded at least 70,000, Israel has also targeted hospitals and medical infrastructure across the Strip, where drones, jets and soldiers targeted the facilities’ vicinity, laying siege before entering them.

Gaza’s medical infrastructure was woefully inadequate due to the Israeli blockade of the Strip but now even that has been destroyed by the war.

The World Health Organization says Israeli attacks killed 627 doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and other healthcare workers between October and January.

Lack of fuel, medical personnel, supplies and power has meant main hospitals across Gaza were out of service. Some have become shelter houses for Palestinians in Gaza, displaced multiple times amid Israel’s continued attacks since October 7.

Patients have been treated on the floor in corridors while doctors have been forced to carry out surgeries without anaesthetics.

“We needed to move her out of Gaza but needed a permit to let her leave,” an official at Al-Aqsa Hospital said.

“We had been calling out to the international community and medical institutions across the world for help over many weeks but we didn’t get any.

“When she was allowed to cross into Egypt, it was too late.”

‘An exceptional woman’

Marwan, her father, was the young athlete’s first and biggest fan. He would proudly call her “the most beautiful karate player in the world” when she rose to the top of the sport in Gaza.

After her death, Marwan said Nagham was “an exceptional woman.”

Nagham fell in love with karate as a child. She was well-known for her agility, softness and talent from the early age of six.

She succeeded in being an icon for the Palestinian sports community, representing Palestine from a very young age in 2011. She finished runner-up twice in the Palestine Karate Championship (2017 and 2018) before finally winning the title in 2019.

“The first thing I gained from karate is personal strength, which encompasses the strength of character and willpower,” Nagham said in an interview with Palestinian outlet Quds News Network.

Her impressive performances, quick rise and dedication to the sport made the Palestine Olympic Committee take notice. Nagham was in line to represent Palestine at the Paris Olympics scheduled to take place this year.

Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestine Olympic Committee, described Nagham’s loss as huge, adding that it will leave a gaping hole for Palestine in the world of sport.

In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, Rajoub said he believed that sport can be a good tool to expose the suffering of the Palestinian people and to highlight the athletes’ determination and commitment to achieving their goals.

He pointed to the football team’s success at reaching the Asian Cup 2023 knockouts under terrible circumstances – “with people being buried in their thousands amid the destruction, the atrocities, the genocide” – as motivating the players to achieve something for the Palestinians.

Soccer Football - AFC Asian Cup - Group C - Hong Kong v Palestine - Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium, Doha, Qatar - January 23, 2024 Palestine's Mohammed Saleh reacts REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Palestinian footballer Mohammed Saleh, from Gaza, points to a message on his arm that reads ‘110’ – referring to the then 110 days of Israel’s war on Gaza – during Palestine’s AFC Asian Cup 2023 game against Hong Kong in Qatar [Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters]

The war’s toll on sport in Gaza

In addition to Nagham, Israeli air strikes have killed two Palestinian beach footballers, Hassan Abu Zaitar and Ibraheem Qaseeaa, as well as a basketball player, Basem al-Nabaheen, from Bureij, central Gaza, where a football star, Nazeer al-Nashash, was also among the casualties.

Football has in fact suffered the most among all sports in Gaza. Hundreds of players and managers have been killed, including national team player Rashid Dabour, who was slated to join the squad for the Asian Cup that took place in Qatar earlier this year.

The Palestinian Football Association building in Gaza has been targeted numerous times along with football stadiums that have been completely destroyed.

Palestine lost its judo star Abdul Hafeed al-Mabhouh, as well as head of its table tennis federation Mohammad al-Dalou. Thousands of other athletes have been wounded in the war as it continues to take a toll on sport in the besieged strip.

In addition to hospitals, the Israeli military has also destroyed other infrastructure from the north to the south, including schools, roads, communication networks and the water system.

The widespread destruction is part of a deepening humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza – with tens of thousands of people starving and heavy fighting continuing to take lives.

UNRWA chief said the UN’s Palestinian refugees agency was last able to deliver aid to northern Gaza on January 23. He described the “looming famine” as a “man-made disaster”.

With every passing day and falling missile, a part of Gaza’s history, culture and existence crumbles and when it does stop, it will take a lot of money, effort and determination to revive the sporting infrastructure that Israeli attacks have targeted and destroyed.

Source: Al Jazeera