Adding pandemic to injury

Medics rush an injured demonstrator to safety.

Nearly 8,000 Palestinians were injured during the 21 months of Great March of Return protests, causing a health crisis in Gaza that has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Ashraf Amra APA images

COVID-19 has hit Gaza hard in ways that are not always immediately obvious to the outside world.

With Gaza’s authorities imposing new lockdowns and travel restrictions – adding to those imposed by Egypt and Israel – in response to a new and dangerous spike in virus cases since August, perhaps those who are hit the hardest are those waiting to go abroad for surgery.

Many of those would-be patients were injured during the Great March of Return demonstrations occurring from March 2018 until December 2019. These saw unarmed protesters gather at the boundary between Gaza and Israel to demand a lifting of the siege against Gaza as well as to assert their right of return to their or their parents’ homes and villages from where they were forcibly removed in the Nakba of 1948-49.

The Israeli military responded with lethal force. Snipers fired live bullets, some to kill, many deliberately to maim.

The result is hundreds of injuries that cannot be treated in Gaza where, after nearly a decade and a half of an Israeli-imposed blockade, the needed health sector infrastructure is simply not available.

Many of these patients today still await treatment, and now also find themselves hostage to a global pandemic that has further restricted their chances of getting medical attention abroad.

Their plight has resulted not just in physical damage, but psychological, professional and personal harm.

Nothing but pain

Ahmad Juha, 30, was injured during a demonstration in September 2018.

“I was protesting near the boundary with many others when a bullet exploded in my right leg,” Ahmad said.

Doctors and international organizations have documented several cases like Ahmad’s where bullets have left unusually large exit wounds. Locally, they are known as exploding bullets. And the damage they cause is often irreparable in Gaza.

Ahmad has had several surgeries to his leg in local hospitals to avoid amputation. But all local attempts have so far failed. In a last-ditch attempt to save his leg, Médecins Sans Frontières arranged for him to travel out of Gaza in March.

COVID-19 put paid to that hope. In June, doctors informed him that there was no hope to save his leg. He has still to sign the paper giving permission for the amputation, however.

“I don’t know. I’m afraid to sign. I want every chance to save my leg.”

The pain, meanwhile, affects him day and night.

“You feel nothing but the pain. I’ve become moody because of the pain medicine.”

It has affected his relationships. Injured and depressed, Ahmad is losing everything he once had. His marriage has not survived the strain, his children now live with his mother, and though he used to work at the Taboon, the most famous pizza restaurant in Gaza, he can no longer find work.

“The protests have stopped. I lost my leg, my job, and I can’t find a new job to afford a decent life for my two daughters,” Ahmad said.

A Gaza health crisis

According to Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF, more than 7,900 Palestinians were injured with live ammunition during the 21 months the Great March of Return protests lasted.

MSF told The Electronic Intifada that “more than two years since the beginning of the protests, many of [those injured] still need follow-up surgery, extended treatment for infected wounds, and require long courses of rehabilitation and specialized care.”

In a briefing paper from MSF, the organization noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected any medical follow-up for injured Palestinians in Gaza.

“COVID-19 is making their excruciating recovery process even longer and harder, since many medical services and activities have been reduced or temporarily suspended.”

MSF in Gaza has been trying to coordinate travel to Jordan through the Erez checkpoint to Israel, but the pandemic has prevented many from traveling.

Ashraf al-Qedra, a spokesperson for Gaza’s health ministry, told The Electronic Intifada that Israel’s long siege has “weakened our abilities and left us without many needed medicines and equipment.”

“The needs are only increasing in the face of the challenge of COVID-19.”

Two men, both with bandages on their legs, sit on a park bench giving the thumbs-up.

Ahmad Juha (right) and Jaber Suleiman have both had treatments postponed as a result of COVID-19. The two became friends after their injuries, both incurred during protests as part of the Great March of Return.

Hana Adli

Rida al-Banna, 46, is the mother of nine children. Her husband suffers severe mood swings and anger management issues that prevent him from working. The family depends on government support and aid from local non-governmental organizations to cover basic needs.

Rida regularly attended the Great March of Return protests as a volunteer to help those who got injured. But she wound up as one of them, when she herself was shot in the leg during one protest in December 2018.

Rida was supposed to travel to Luxembourg with MSF coordination to receive treatment, but this has been delayed due to the pandemic.

For now, Rida has made connections with other people who were injured, as they try to support each other in municipal spaces.

But that too has become harder.

“We spend time here to avoid friction with our families. But social distancing rules have increased the pressure on us, and we can’t do any other activities at the moment,” she told The Electronic Intifada.

A life of dignity

Muhammad al-Bahtiti, 28, lives in the Shujaiya neighborhood of Gaza City. He was shot in his leg during a protest in May 2018.

After nearly a year of treatment, doctors in Gaza decided the leg had to be amputated.

He underwent the operation in February 2019. But rehabilitation took time and was eventually disrupted by the coronavirus.

“I was very stressed staying at home during lockdown. Clinic visits were restricted and I was doing physiotherapy sessions by myself, with doctors guiding me over the phone. It was the hardest thing during the pandemic,” the former construction worker told The Electronic Intifada.

The constant pain made him difficult for others.

“I was shouting at my wife and angry with my children all the time,” he said.

To compound the problem, he is now in debt too. His family tried to help out, but that too caused friction.

“My brothers couldn’t meet my debts while I only sat at home, and they started to blame me for going to the protest for nothing.”

Muhammad was meant to have traveled to Amman, Jordan in March, but fell foul of the lockdown. As a result, he needed further amputation. Another six centimeters were taken off his leg over the knee.

Slowly, he is trying to put a life back together. He has started producing soap to sell from his home to market stalls.

“I will do what I can to provide a life with dignity to my children. We don’t need much,” Muhammad insisted.

Jaber Suleiman, 28, was shot in 2018.

He barely survived.

“After my injury I lost consciousness due to bleeding. The doctors decided to put me in the hospital morgue thinking I was dead. It was my father who discovered I was still alive, so the health ministry had me transferred to Ramallah.”

But since his return, he was denied a travel permit by Israel seven times before the pandemic struck, he told The Electronic Intifada. Three weeks ago doctors amputated the lower part of his leg.

Jaber, a resident of the Daraj neighborhood of Gaza City, was a casual day laborer before his injury, but he will be lucky to get any similar construction work once his treatment is complete.

He, like thousands of others, is facing a harsh future, trapped as everyone in Gaza is by a hostile military occupation, an economy in ruins and a global pandemic.

Hana Adli is a journalist based in Gaza.