Gaza revived: how an Irishman is giving hope to Palestinian amputees

Amputee Football Championships in Gaza on 13 April 2019 [Moahammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

Amputee Football Championships in Gaza on 13 April 2019

By Muhammad Hussein

Gaza. The very name evokes images of Israeli bombardment, crumbling infrastructure, keffiyeh-clad protestors standing defiantly with Palestinian flags and slingshots, and screaming children shot by snipers in a fog of tear gas and smoke from burning tyres. All of these images are the unfortunate reality of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, but there remains an untapped sporting potential within the population, and one man has dared to dig it out from among the most unlikely of people: the growing number of amputees.

Over the past few years, the number of amputees in the Gaza Strip has risen exponentially, particularly since the beginning of the Great March of Return protests at the nominal border between Gaza and Israel since 30 March last year. The brutality of the Israeli response to the peaceful protesters includes the use of live ammunition and tear gas, killing almost 300 Palestinian men, women and children, and wounding more than 25,000 others. In May this year, the UN stated that in the current crisis with its serious healthcare shortages, around 1,700 Palestinians face the possibility of having lower limbs amputated. All is not lost, though.

Speaking exclusively to Middle East Monitor from his office in Dublin where he works full-time as an accounts manager for a housing company, Simon Baker stressed his status as a football coach rather than someone who is trying to change the politics in occupied Palestine.

READ: Israel has killed 16 Palestinian children in Gaza this year 

“I was there to try and create a good image,” he told me, “and the one thing I said to the players is ‘I’m not telling you to forgive, I’m not telling you to forget, but if you don’t start focusing on tomorrow and you only focus on yesterday, you’re never going to move forward’.”

His mission in Gaza began with losing his own leg after an accident at a building site in 2004. The incident left him depressed and traumatised. He overcame this by getting back into sports, football in particular, where he discovered that being an amputee was no real barrier to his value as an active member of society. Since then, he has dedicated his free time and energy to teaching and helping other amputees to realise their potential as the head of the European Amputee Football Federation (EAFF) since 2015.

Amputee Football Championships in Gaza on 13 April 2019 [Moahammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

When he first began training Gaza’s amputee football team, his intention was clear. “I don’t understand the situation, I only knew what I saw on the news, but I wasn’t there to be a politician.” He outlined to the players the many benefits that sporting activities can bring when separated from politics, namely that “you turn your life around” and that you “can become a valuable member of society… you’re representing your community. But the long-term goal is that you’re actually going to represent your country.”

When Baker arrived in Gaza in April this year with a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the amputee football team had already been together since the start of the Great March protests, but did not have the resources and opportunity to develop to any meaningful extent. “It was really just a few lads having a kick around with a ball,” Baker recalled, “and it was more them just chasing the ball. It looked good, though, and they were impressive, and it was great that they had taken this initiative.”

What the players really lacked was a solid structure which could help them move from being a local to an international team. “There’s a lot of work before they start playing football: we’re working on the structure, delivery, dominance; everyone has a role to play. It has to become sustainable.”

READ: Sohaib and Naziha lost their limbs, but did not lose their hope 

This sustainability, Baker pointed out, is the primary end goal of his time in Gaza. “When I go to a country, the first thing to do make sure that there’s good governance and that they’re registered. It’s not a case of get off a plane, here’s some crutches, take some photos, goodbye, because six months later it’s all collapsed.”

With the objectives and structures set up for the team back in Gaza and maintained during his absence, Baker plans to return to the coastal territory in September to continue his mission; he has ambitious plans for the team. He wants to create “a festival of sports in Gaza”, a two-day programme of events for other disabled sportsmen and women, including blind karate and wheelchair basketball, in one of the Strip’s stadiums, bringing people together to celebrate sporting achievements with plenty of food and music. “The head of the ICRC delegation said that this sounds really good, because it’s a long time since the people of Gaza had something to celebrate.” Baker also aims to lead a marathon along the coast of the territory.

Moreover, the Irishman does not simply aim to coach the team to play in Gaza; his sights are set far beyond the Strip towards an international horizon. His long-term goal is to establish a junior amputee football team, drawing players from the growing legion of child amputees, which would make the project both regulated and recognised as one with the capability to play internationally. “We created it in Europe and the reason we did so is because that’s the future of the sport… You create a proper league so there’s regular football, and from the league we hope in six months to have a proper international team, because you get the best of the best.”

For this, the project requires more media recognition, funding and help from both local and international actors. One possible stakeholder that Baker intends to bring on board is the Palestinian Football Association (PFA), the governing body for the sport in Palestine, which has yet to recognise amputee football. “The PFA has a responsibility to participate in something like this,” he insisted. “We’re not asking it for money, we’re just there to create the foundations – the governance, the structure, the right public image – and we register with a sporting organisation. But then we grow the teams.”

The PFA, if it decides to back the team, could arrange for it to have the use of football pitches free of charge, facilitate training and governance, and provide other support which would boost Gaza’s amputee football team towards an international level.

Although Baker admitted that he had seen the obvious effects of the suffocating siege imposed on the Gaza Strip since 2007 by Israel and its allies, he confessed that he did not experience any serious personal shortages during his stay. He did, however, say that he forgot to bring sunscreen lotion with him and, on the first day of training, the heat got to him. After the training session, he asked the security guard assigned to him to stop somewhere to buy some lotion; he was told that only absolute necessities are generally available in Gaza, due to the siege.

Amputee Football Championships in Gaza on 13 April 2019 [Moahammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

The Israeli authorities did not allow him to bring any kit and crutches with him into Gaza because “they could be used as weapons”. Baker’s sunburnt face brought it home to him that the Palestinians in Gaza are affected even more seriously by the daily shortages of basic items. “I know all these things,” he said in dismay, “but I can’t change it.”

While some might criticise Baker and other outsiders for not openly condemning the Israeli blockade on Gaza and the atrocities committed against participants in the Great March protests, the reality is that to pick a side is to jeopardise the ability to help the team and other needy Palestinians. Visas to enter Gaza are a fact of life and can be withheld by the occupation authorities, as could visas for players and the team to go abroad for international matches. This is constantly on Baker’s mind.

WHO: 3 children a month in Gaza left disabled for life 

While the Strip is blockaded and its people languish in suffocating circumstances, the Palestinians in Gaza have made a lasting impression on the football coach. Baker not only underwent his own personal trauma, but has also travelled to various countries to train those in poverty, and has gained an insight into the challenges facing amputees in less developed parts of the world. He has also discovered a trait in the Palestinians which he did not find in such abundance anywhere else: resilience.

“One thing I did notice is that not one person came and said, ‘We have it so bad, I hate Israel, I don’t want this.’ They just said, ‘No more training, let’s play football.’ I was really amazed by it.” Unlike other countries in which he has trained amputees, he was shocked by the restraint and pride which with the Palestinians hold themselves. “I have never seen such resilient people… not one player said, ‘Give me something, give me money.’ They were very proud people.”

Simon Baker’s overall message is to separate sport from politics. “Sport is about fair play,” he explained. “If only for one hour a week the players can forget the problems in Gaza and only focus on the football, then I’m doing my job.” This, he said, is how anyone who is not a politician can truly help people, as the sport will help to develop them back into being core members of society; the politics can follow. “I’m not a politician; the only thing I can say is what I think sport will do, and that is that it can make a person feel a sense of worth, a sense of being; feel like a valued member of the community.”

He admitted that he doesn’t know how the situation in the Gaza Strip will end. “You know, I just hope that there’s no more damage and no more amputees… One thing I can say, though, is that in the future, if I can, I will take my wife to Palestine, for sure. It’s a beautiful country. And the beaches!”

This Irish football coach, himself an amputee, is giving hope to Palestinians in the same situation. In that sense alone, Gaza has been revived.

(Source / 21.07.2019) 

Nearly 100 Gazan Protesters Wounded by Israeli Forces

21 JUL2:41 AM

Israeli occupation forces have again attacked Palestinians taking part in the weekly “Great March of Return” rallies, injuring 98 Gazan protesters, according to the Gazan Health Ministry.

The Gazan Health Ministry also said that 49 of the injured protesters had sustained bullet wounds from Israeli live fire.

Four paramedics were also among the wounded.

The rallies have been held every week since March 30, last year. The Palestinians demand the right to return of those driven out of their homeland by Israeli aggression.

Israeli troops have killed at least 305 Palestinians since the beginning of the rallies and wounded nearly 18,000 others, according to the Gazan Health Ministry.

In March, PNN further reports, a United Nations (UN) fact-finding mission found that Israeli forces committed rights violations during their crackdown against the Palestinian protesters in Gaza that may amount to war crimes.

Gaza has been under Israeli siege since June 2007, which has caused a decline in living standards.

Israel has also launched three major wars against the enclave since 2008, killing thousands of Gazans each time and shattering the impoverished territory’s already poor infrastructure.

(Source / 21.07.2019) 

Journalist Injured as Soldiers Attack Bethlehem

21 JUL2:45 AM

A journalist was injured and many others suffocated from teargas when Israeli forces attacked Palestinians taking part in a rally protesting the planned demolition of hundreds of apartments in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi al-Hummus.

WAFA correspondence said that Ayat Arqawi, who works as a photojournalist with APA agency, was hit and injured by a gas canister in her pelvis.

Meanwhile, several protesters sustained suffocation from gas inhalation, including Minister Walid Assaf, the chairman of the Colonization and Wall Resistance Commission.

(Source / 21.07.2019) 

Jewish community hails Hamas distinction between Jews, Zionism

‘The Jewish community has lived peacefully in Palestine for hundreds of years in mutual respect with our Palestinian neighbors, never seeking to dominate or attack anyone,’ Jewish rabbi said

By Motasem A Dalloul 

Neturei Karta, religious group of Haredi Jews who rejects Zionism and the establishment of Israel, sent on Thursday a letter to Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh praising his movement’s statement which separated between Jews and Zionism.

“We are greatly appreciative of your understanding of the distinction between Judaism, a religion, and Zionism, a nationalistic movement,” the Jewish rabbi wrote.

“The Jewish community has lived peacefully in Palestine for hundreds of years in mutual respect with our Palestinian neighbors, never seeking to dominate or attack anyone,” he added.

He went on: “The Torah teaches that we are in exile and therefore we must live humbly as loyal citizens of our countries, praying for their wellbeing.

“That is how Jews lived in countries all over the world for 2000 years, and that is how we wish to continue living.”

Calls to target Jews around the world

This letter came after the movement had issued a statement, clarify remarks made by a member of its political bureau last week in which he mixed between Jews and Zionists.

Fathi Hammad, a member of Hamas political bureau, addressed the protesters during the protests of the Great March of Return on Friday 12 July, saying that “our patience has run out.”

He continued: “We are on the verge of exploding. If this siege is not undone, we will explode in the face of our enemies, with God’s permission and glory. The explosion is not only going to be in Gaza but also in the [West] Bank and abroad, if God wills.”

Hammad was referring to strict Israeli restrictions on the movement of people and goods between Gaza and the outside world.

Addressing the Palestinians in diaspora, he said: “They are warming up. A long time has passed with them warming up. All of you 7 million Palestinians abroad, enough of the warming up. You have Jews everywhere and we must attack every Jew on the globe by way of slaughter and killing, if God permits. Enough of the warming up.”

Hamas disowns remarks

In the statement, Hamas disowned the remarks uttered by Fathi Hammad and said that these remarks did not represent any of Hamas stances.

Hamas stressed in the statement that such remarks contradict the terms of its charter, which clearly stipulates that the struggle is only between the Palestinians and the Zionist occupiers of Palestine and stresses that the struggle is limited inside Palestine.

“Our struggle is with the occupation occupying our land and desecrating our sanctities, not conflict with the Jews in the world or with Judaism as a religion,” Hamas said in the statement.

“The movement has already condemned the attacks against safe Jews in their places of worship,” the statement added, referring to the attacks carried out mainly against the Jewish synagogues in the USA.

Hope for ending Zionist state

In the letter, Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss hoped the speedy end of the Zionist state, which, he said, practices “oppression?” against, not only the Palestinians, but also the Jews.

“We Orthodox Jews are greatly pained over the occupation, with its long history of killing, stealing and oppression. With an aching heart we cry out, ‘Not in our name!’”

He added: “A large percentage of Orthodox Jews are opposed to the Zionist state and all its actions, both around the world and in Palestine.

“It’s well-known that members of our community who live under the Zionists refuse to serve in the IDF, and are currently struggling to resist the Zionist government’s attempts to draft them.”

The Rabbi added: “We pray that the unnecessary loss of life of Arabs and Jews should no longer continue. We pray and look forward for the day when Arabs and Jews will once again live together in peace in tranquility as in centuries past.

“Ultimately, we pray and yearn for the revelation of the Almighty’s glory, when all humanity will serve Him in harmony and joy. Amen.”

Neturei Karta(Aramaic: “Guardians of the City”) is a group of Orthodox Jews which rejects Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel. They believe that the true Israel can only be reestablished with the coming of the Messiah.

They number some 5,000 and are concentrated in Jerusalem. Other, larger groups associated with Neturei Karta but not members of the group, can be found in Israel, London, New York City, and upstate New York state.

(Source / 21.07.2019) 

Mladenov: PA’s Punitive Measures Are Only Aimed At Gaza Population

UN Middle East peace coordinator Nickolay Mladenov has said that the punitive financial measures taken by the Palestinian Authority (PA) against its rivals in Gaza only put pressure on the population.

Mladenov made his remarks during an interview conducted on Friday by the French newspaper Liberation.

“In fact, the PA has put pressure on the population and not Hamas,” the UN official said.  

He warned that Gaza always faces the looming threat of military confrontation because of the deteriorating humanitarian and security situation, pointing out that he had a difficult weekend last May when he and the Egyptians intervened to prevent another all-out military conflict.

Gaza has suffered recently from acute living and humanitarian crises after PA president Mahmoud Abbas deprived its population of medical treatment abroad, suspended its medical supplies, imposed heavy taxes on its fuel needs to generate electricity, asked Israel to reduce electricity provided through its cross-border power lines, lowered the salaries paid to civil servants and gave others early retirement.

(Source / 21.07.2019) 

SEVEN PALESTINIAN PRISONERS CONTINUE HUNGER STRIKE DESPITE DANGER OF DEATH

Ramallah (QNN)- Seven Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails have been on hunger strike for long periods, to protest against administrative detention, despite deterioration in health condition.

The Palestinian Prisoners Club revealed that the health condition of Jaafar Izziddin, who had been on hunger strike for 36 days so far and who is arrested in Ramleh jail, has been significantly deteriorating. Izziddin started throwing up bile, which could be a sign of serious problem. He also suffers from severe pain in his body.

Ahmad Zahran, arrested in the same jail, also have been arrested under administrative detention for 29 days.

The Prisoners Club noted that the jail administration has sent three prisoners to Asqalan jail as a punitive measure for going on hunger strike.

Hasan Zghari in Ofer jail has also joined the hunger strike 13 days ago. Meanwhile, Sulta Makhlof also started hunger strike 4 days ago.

The prisoners club revealed that the IPS imposes punitive measures against prisoners, who go on hunger strike; which include being denied from visits by family members and lawyers, transferring them to other jails, putting them in solitary confinement, and being assaulted by jailers.

(Source / 21.07.2019) 

MORE ISRAELI RAIDS AND MORE ARRESTS IN OCCUPIED WEST BANK

Ramallah (QNN)- Israeli occupation forces on the early hours of Sunday arrested four Palestinians from different regions throughout the occupied West Bank.

Local sources said that Israeli forces carried out arrest and raid campaign , in which search and vandalism were included.

In the same vein, spokesperson of the Israeli army said that the army arrested four “wanted” Palestinians during raid in the occupied West Bank.

Local sources said that the arrested Palestinian were taken to an unknown destination after searching their houses.

The Israeli army carries out daily night-raids into Palestinians houses throughout the occupied West Bank, during which many Palestinians are arbitrarily abducted.

(Source / 21.07.2019)