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For the past 11 months, protests on the Gaza-Israel border, at times violent, have become a routine flashpoint in the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict. According to the United Nations, 263 Palestinians have been killed by live Israeli fire as participants in the so-called March of Return as they have approached the border fence.
But thousands have also been wounded, Gaza health officials say. Mohammed Musbaih, age 17, is one of many teenage boys and young men celebrated as heroes of the Palestinian struggle after being disabled by their wounds. The youths say they were motivated to protest how difficult the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip has made daily life for them. They voice bitterness that their efforts to capture the world's attention have ended up with no real change, only the crutches, wheelchairs, and depression that has followed.
“My message to the international community is to put an end to these protests and fulfill our demands,” Mohammed says. “People here are losing their souls and parts of their bodies due to the fire opened toward them at the borders. My message to Israeli soldiers is to stop targeting us.”
One night recently, Jehad Abdulaziz Musbaih could not find his teenage son, Mohammed.
Mr. Musbaih, a resident of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, finally found him at the local cemetery where the 17-year-old’s right leg had been buried.
It was amputated after Mohammed was shot and wounded by an Israeli sniper at a demonstration on Gaza’s border. For the past 11 months, the border protests, at times violent, have become a routine, weekly flashpoint in the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The youth was weeping as he sat near the spot of his leg’s “grave.”
“It tore up my heart watching my son cry,” says Mr. Musbaih, a former civil servant. He says his son has been trying to hide his anguish from the family. But he found him that night at the cemetery, as he has so many nights at home, crying alone in the darkness where he thinks no one will hear him.
Mohammed Musbaih is one of more than 6,500 Gazans – many of them, like him, teenage boys and young men – who have been wounded in the demonstrations by live fire, according to Gaza health officials.
Many of them have been hit in the legs by Israeli fire when crowds of hundreds, even thousands, of protesters swell near the border fence with Israel, protesting against Israel’s blockade of the strip.
To youths of Mohammed’s generation who have grown up amid persistent violence, participation in the protests is a national act of heroism, experts say, and the idea of being wounded is seen as a path to self-respect.
Every Friday, chaotic scenes play out. Some demonstrate peacefully, but others burn tires that paint the sky with thick black plumes of smoke. The Israeli army says the smoke is intended to obscure the vision of soldiers guarding the heavily fortified fence area and to give cover to protesters trying to breach it.
Some use slingshots to hurl stones toward the soldiers and send flaming kites and balloons toward the Israeli side of the border, setting fields and the landscape on fire.
International outrage has been focused mostly on the fatalities – 263 Palestinians have been killed by live fire, according to the United Nations. But Gaza health officials say that among the thousands of wounded, some 500 are now permanently disabled, including more than 100 who have had legs amputated.
Last Thursday, the United Nations Human Rights Council accused Israeli soldiers of intentionally opening fire on those protesting, even when they did not pose any “imminent threat.” The report said some demonstrators were acting violently, but that the situation on the Gazan side did not constitute combat conditions that justify the level of Israeli fire. The report also accused Israeli snipers of shooting at individuals clearly recognizable as journalists, health workers, children, and people with disabilities.
Israel rejected the report, calling it hostile and slanted, and blamed Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, for carrying out what it said were terror activities during the demonstrations.
Living with the consequences
Far from the international stage of accusations and counteraccusations, young men on crutches are now a common sight on the streets of Gaza.
When first wounded they are celebrated as heroes of the Palestinian struggle. But less visible is the painful aftermath: the surgeries and rehabilitation in a medical system perpetually on the brink of collapse, operating amid power outages and a shortage of supplies and physicians; the care given by parents at home at a time the young men are supposed to be making their own way in the world and contributing to the family income; and the anguish these young people feel as they realize they will be spending a lifetime living with the consequences of the Friday afternoon they went out to demonstrate.
“In the past, I never used crutches. I used to run with my legs,” says Mohammed Abu Hasanian, 13, from the Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip. He says he was watching soldiers on a hill on the other side of the fence from a distance of about 100 meters when he was shot in his leg, which was later amputated.
Mohammed Musbaih is a high school senior with thick wavy hair that he styles with gel. Clutching the sides of his metal crutches, he walks the packed-sand streets of his neighborhood that he once raced down, kicking soccer balls and chasing his friends.
He recalls the day last April he and his cousin went to the demonstrations after lunch. He describes arriving at a peaceful scene and spotting an older woman holding a Palestinian flag. He asked to take the flag and then approached the fence, placing it to fly there.
The next thing he remembers he was writhing on the ground, shot in the leg by a sniper’s bullet. By that time, he says, Israeli gunfire was ongoing, and it took about 30 minutes for a break in the fire to come and for Palestinian medics to reach him. With no ambulance available, he was initially transported by motorcycle.
“I dreamed of being a soccer player and an engineer. But when I became disabled, my dreams were also amputated,” he says.
A path forward
There are some efforts underway to help find a path forward for these amputees, many of whom are fixated on their disability thwarting even nonathletic pursuits. To compensate for the overwhelmed health system, there are international aid groups that sent physicians and medical supplies to help provide extra medical attention. And there is a volunteer group of Turkish doctors, for example, that works to deliver psychological support as well. Among the medical teams that have entered Gaza to help are Arab citizens of Israel who are part of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel.
And there is a new Gaza soccer team comprised of amputees that was founded by a member of the Palestinian Paralympic Committee. It’s called the Team of Champions.
Mohammed Musbaih says he is excited to join. Most of the players lost a leg after protesting at the fence demonstrations. They play each other on special sports crutches that are provided through local donations, and they get coaching in how to use them to race down the field.
The players say it has given them a feeling of hope to be active and involved again. Coaches say they see how being out on the field and together in a group as teammates has helped boost their spirits.
March of Return
It’s been almost a year since the border protests were launched. Originally, they were planned by civil-society activists as a peaceful set of demonstrations seeking to draw international attention to conditions inside impoverished Gaza, with its ongoing power outages, fuel shortages, and 70 percent unemployment that they charge is the direct result of Israel’s ongoing blockade.
The protests were called the March of Return, because the demonstrators are also demanding the right for those whose families became refugees during the war that led to Israel’s creation in 1948 to return within Israel’s borders. The majority of Gaza’s 1.9 million people are descended from refugees.
Piggybacking on popular support for the protests, leaders of Hamas quickly took over their organization, at times exhorting the marchers to breach the border fence.
Palestinian human-rights groups say Israeli soldiers shoot anyone who touches the fence or comes close to it. The Israeli army says it has continually called on Gazans not to approach what they refer to as “the combat zone,” the area near the fence, and not to take part in the protests in the first place.
Aside from the United Nations report, Israeli and international human-rights organizations have been speaking out against the use of live fire, describing it as a violation of international law and immoral, and alleging that most of those killed were unarmed and therefore not a danger.
In response to The Christian Science Monitor’s query about the number of dead and wounded, the army said it uses live ammunition “as a last resort and in accordance with open-fire regulations that comply with international law.”
The army, it said, “operates against violent riots and terrorist activities … which include shooting at soldiers, attempts to penetrate into Israel, attempts to damage the security infrastructure, burning tires, throwing stones, throwing Molotov cocktails and grenades in order to harm IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] soldiers.”
The army statement also describes Hamas as a “terrorist organization” that “uses its civilians as human shields and places them at the forefront of terror activity, demonstrating cynicism and contempt for human life.”
“A badge of honor”
Fadel Abu Hain, a psychiatrist in Gaza, says young Palestinians in the Gaza Strip grow up living close to danger. Between 2009 and 2014 there were three wars between Hamas and Israel in a 149-square-mile sliver of land that has one of the highest population densities in the world and no safe havens. In between, violent flare-ups are almost routine.
“The concept of danger is different for youth in our community,” he says. “They believe that getting close to danger that exposes their lives to death is an act of nationalism and a badge of honor.
“Those who go to borders and get injured and then lose their limbs think they have participated in a heroic act,” Dr. Abu Hain continues. “They think this is how people would respect them. They feel positive for their act, forgetting the danger they put themselves in.
“But after the injury,” he says, “mainly after they see their legs have been amputated, they start thinking of the hard situation they put themselves in.”
The youths say they were motivated to march to protest how difficult the Israeli blockade has made daily life for them. They voice bitterness that their efforts to capture the world’s attention have ended up with no real change, only the crutches, wheelchairs, and depression that has followed.
“My message to the international community is to put an end to these protests and fulfill our demands,” Mohammed Musbaih says. “People here are losing their souls and parts of their bodies due to the fire opened toward them at the borders. My message to Israeli soldiers is to stop targeting us.”
A doctor recalls
Mohammed Abu Mughaiseeb, a physician who works with Doctors Without Borders, remembers last May 14, the day Palestinians mourn Israel’s creation in 1948, as an especially “black day.”
At a hospital where he was stationed, more than 250 wounded with gunshot injuries arrived within three hours.
“Patients were everywhere, so they waited for treatment in the hallways and in the parking area and some waited in lines outside of the surgical rooms where medical teams worked 48 hours straight,” he says.
Many of those with leg wounds will need multiple surgeries over the years and ongoing physical therapy and rehabilitation, all services that are in short supply.
Abdullah Qassem, 16, from Gaza City, is now in a wheelchair, both of his legs amputated. He looks back with these words:
“This has been the dark turning point of my life. All aspects of my life are changed, whether it’s going up and down stairs, getting to school or the bathroom, or even leaving the house. I used to play soccer, go to sea, play with my neighbors.
“But the amputations stole whole parts of my life away.”
Saud Abu Ramadan contributed reporting from Gaza.