The players race across the field on crutches, jostling for the soccer ball and passing it back and forth, their prosthetic legs lined up along the sidelines at a stadium in the Gaza Strip.
They are the first Palestinian national soccer team made up entirely of amputees — players drawn from a population of hundreds that has grown in recent years through several rounds of fighting between Israel and the territory’s terrorist Hamas rulers.
They say the game helps them cope with the trauma of their injuries and the hardships of living in a crowded territory that has endured four wars and a blockade that aims to prevent the import of weapons imposed by Egypt and Israel since Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.
“We feel we have something, we can give something,” said Ziad Abu Halib, 41, who lost his right leg in 2008, during the first Israel-Hamas war, known in Israel as Operation Cast Lead. He hasn’t missed a single practice or match since joining the local league after it was founded in 2019.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, working with Palestinian Amputee Football Association, sponsored the long process of forming the national team. The players hope to compete regionally, their sights set on the World Cup for amputees in Turkey next October.
Qualifying matches will be held in Iran in March — they can make the trip if the border opens to allow them to travel through Egypt.
Coach Simon Baker, a Red Cross consultant and founder of the Irish Amputee Football Association, oversaw a final training session of the season on Sunday.
The rules are modified in accordance with the World Amputee Football Federation. Players leave their prosthetic limbs on the sidelines and move about with crutches, which cannot be used to advance or direct the ball.
Baker selected 20 players from a pool of 47 athletes representing five Gaza clubs.
“They were tested [for] speed, agility, fitness and also looking at the skill,” Baker said. “We want the player that has everything” and is also a team player, he said.
Sadly, the war and unrest of recent years have provided hundreds of potential recruits. Gaza is home to an estimated 1,600 amputees out of a population of more than 2 million.
Hamas, the Islamic terror group which rules Gaza and seeks to destroy Israel, organized violent protests along the heavily guarded frontier with Israel for several months in 2018 and 2019, with the purported aim of easing the blockade of Gaza. (Israel and Egypt say the blockade is needed to prevent Hamas from importing weaponry.) Thousands turned out every Friday, many of them bused in by the terrorist group. Protesters burned tires, hurled stones and firebombs, and many tried to breach the security fence.
Israeli snipers behind sand berms on the other side of the fence fired live ammunition, rubber-coated bullets and tear gas to disperse the protesters and prevent them from crossing into Israel. They often aimed for the legs, sparing the lives of demonstrators but sometimes leaving them with permanent disabilities.
More than 200 Palestinians were killed and over 8,000 were wounded by live fire, with at least 155 undergoing amputations, according to Israeli and Palestinian rights groups. An Israeli soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper and several others were wounded.
Israel casts doubt on the number of those killed during the border unrest — in particular disavowing figures from the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry — and also claims that many of those killed and wounded were members of Hamas’s armed wing.
Baker first visited Gaza in 2019, while the protests were still underway, with the aim of creating a league for amputees. He trained referees and players, and eventually helped organize a league consisting of five clubs with over 100 players. He also started a junior league for amputees as young as 5 years old.
Baker brushes off any talk of politics. The goal, he says, is “to create an environment whereby the players come to the field and they leave the trauma behind.”