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Gaza's legion of war-wounded battle to forge new lives

AFP , Tuesday 27 Sep 2016
Imad al-Firi, a 50-year-old Palestinian man who was wounded during the 50-day Israeli assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014, stands at Gaza's Artificial Limbs and Polio Centre (ALPC) in Gaza City on August 24, 2016 (Photo: AFP)

Every time he hears a loud noise, Imed al-Firi hides his healthy leg under a cushion -- a reflex he developed after the summer of 2014, when Israeli tank fire struck his Gaza home and robbed him of his right leg.

He is among thousands of Palestinians in Gaza learning to live with disabilities or missing limbs after three wars by Israel against Gaza since 2008.

Beyond limited medical care in Gaza, they also face a lack of facilities for the disabled in the Palestinian enclave run by Islamist movement Hamas which has been under an Israeli blockade for nearly a decade.

More than 75,000 Gazans suffer from some form of disability, a third of them linked to conflict in the strip which is home to 1.9 million Palestinians, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza, the deadliest of the three conflicts, wounded 11,000 people.

Firi, 50, often sees Mohannad Aid, 20, at Gaza's clinic for polio and prosthetic limbs.

Aid and Firi have at least two things in common -- both are missing a leg and are unemployed, like nearly half of Gaza's population.

Aid lost his leg from rocket fire while returning home from a mosque in 2014.

He has since become better at managing his prosthetic leg -- two metal rods connected by a joint at knee level, with a red-and-black tennis shoe at the bottom.

His physiotherapist Ahmed Abu Shaaban says he has made impressive progress, but everyday life remains a challenge for him in Gaza.

"Some streets are not paved and are only dirt, others are potholed and rutted," said Abu Shaaban. "Construction is chaotic."

Firi says little is done to ease conditions for the disabled despite Gaza's legion of war wounded.

He has started an organisation for people in his situation and has organised protests to demand improvements.

When met by AFP, he had a letter in his pocket for the mayor of Gaza City demanding paving of a road. He wants to send another one calling for beach access for the disabled.

"Everyone has the right to go to the beach, but we are not good enough for that?" Firi complained.

Access to medical supplies is another source of frustration.

The only factory to build prosthetic limbs in the Gaza Strip faces limited capacity, factory head Nabil Farah said, as workers surrounding him moulded and carved plastic arms and legs.

"It is hard to bring raw materials into Gaza, especially chemical products needed for production," he said.

Israel strictly controls goods entering the Gaza Strip to keep out items that could be employed to build weapons or tunnels, which have been used to carry out attacks.

So far this year, 4,562 tonnes of medical materials have entered Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing with Israel, according to COGAT, the Israeli defence ministry unit that oversees it.

COGAT says it has made an effort to improve health assistance for Gazans, though UN officials and others have called for a complete lifting of the blockade.

Israeli authorities hand out limited numbers of permits to Gazans to leave the territory.

Every day hundreds of Gazans enter Israel -- 22,635 in 2016 including those accompanying them -- for treatment there or for care in the occupied West Bank or abroad, COGAT says.

However, in July one out of three were refused or did not receive a response to their request to leave Gaza to visit a hospital, according to the World Health Organization.

The total number of those who made a request was 2,040. Those who were refused or did not receive a response included 146 children, the WHO said.

Orthopaedics is among the medical specialities most in demand in Gaza, along with oncology, paediatrics, haematology and ophthalmology, the WHO says.

"More than 2,300 Gazans need a prosthetic," Farah said, while his factory supplies between 12 and 18 people a month with assistance from the Red Cross.

Psychological counselling is also required to help them adjust, said Mamadou Sow, head of the ICRC's Gaza branch.

Such counselling is not only to help people learn to live without a limb, but also to assist their social integration, he said.

There is also a need to push for access for the disabled in public spaces and convince "authorities and the population at large that the disabled can do great things if we give them the opportunity," said Sow.

Firi says he has "gained confidence in himself" and learnt that he can help others, particularly through organising them.

"We are an engine for society, not a handicap," he said.

*The story was edited by Ahram Online.

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