It’s been more than a year since the Great March of Return protests started in Gaza.
They are also a reassertion of the Palestinian right of return to the lands and homes from which Palestinians were dispossessed in 1948. Two-thirds of Gaza’s population of approximately two million people are refugees.
But the activism of demonstrators has come at a high and deadly cost. Still, people march.
More than 200 people have been killed and there have been well over 11,000 moderate to serious injuries. According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, up to the end of March and after one year of protests, there were 114 amputations because of injuries to protesters.
There is hardly a person in Gaza who has not, in one way or another, been affected by these stark statistics.
Luckily, I haven’t lost a close friend or a relative. I know, however, plenty of friends, relatives and colleagues who have been wounded.
One of them, Wael al-Sedawi, is my cousin and childhood friend.
Wael, 28, almost lost his life on 19 October last year, when he was shot, not once, not twice, but six times, three times in each leg.
For a while, I watched him hover between life and death in the intensive care section at the Indonesian hospital in northern Gaza. The tendons in his right leg were torn and his left leg was damaged beyond the capacity of doctors in Gaza to repair.
But Wael’s father Yousef, 69, initially refused medical advice that his son’s left leg be amputated. Instead, he held out hope that he could secure a permit for his son to be treated in an Israeli hospital, the only place he could think of that might save his son’s leg in time.
The permit was refused for “security reasons.”
According to the United Nations, people injured in the Great March of Return protests were overwhelmingly refused treatment in Israel. Less than a fifth of referrals were approved, a situation only partly alleviated by the opening in May of the Rafah crossing to Egypt.
With Wael’s condition deteriorating, doctors urged his family not to delay. Not amputating, they said, could risk his life.
Four days after Wael had been admitted, Yousef finally agreed to his son’s surgery, having exhausted all hope that his son, newly married, might make a full recovery.
But by then, Wael had slipped into a coma. For days after the operation, the family prayed. For nearly a week, Wael’s mother, Hanan, my mother’s sister and her spitting image, hardly slept.
On the morning of the seventh day, Wael woke and asked for water. He had survived.
Wael is home now with his wife Nadia. He has lost his cleaning job. For the couple who had been married just four months when Wael was discharged, life now consists of endless rehabilitation and medical treatments in one hospital or another.
“I don’t know what I have to do for my husband,” 19-year-old Nadia said. “It’s a really difficult situation. Instead of living as newlyweds, we’re moving from one hospital to another. I’m still in shock.”
Wael is on a waiting list for a prosthetic limb. Meanwhile, he is trying to keep his mood up.
“I lost my leg and job, but I’m grateful that I’m back from death,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “I’m waiting for a prosthetic and I hope I can live a normal life and find a job suitable to my health condition.”
He is receiving physical therapy at the Artificial Limbs and Polio Center in preparation for an artificial limb.
He might have to wait a long time. The center is under-equipped as a result of the Israeli blockade and under enormous pressure due to the number of new amputees arriving seemingly every week.
“We can’t meet all the needs of the large number of injured people we are seeing,” Muhammad Dweima, head of the center, told The Electronic Intifada. “The Israeli authorities are also restricting the entry of materials we need to produce limbs.”
So far, according to Dweima, 76 people injured in the Great March of Return protests have received artificial limbs and rehabilitation treatment from the center. The rest, including Wael, have to wait their turn.
Compared to Yasser Qudih, Wael had an easy ride.
Yasser, 35, a photojournalist who has extensively covered the Great March of Return protests, believes his survival was miraculous.
On 14 May last year, when demonstrations fell on a Monday to protest the US embassy move to Jerusalem, Yasir was covering protests in eastern Khan Younis.
Yasser was wearing the usual press vest that clearly marked him as a journalist.
It did him no favors. He was shot just above the pelvic area in the left side.
The bullet shattered his insides. Comatose, he was allowed to exit Gaza by the Israeli military and was transferred to al-Makassed hospital in East Jerusalem.
His wife and fellow journalist, Rana al-Shrafi, accompanied him. He underwent, she recalled, four emergency surgeries. Part of his stomach, the ureter, liver and spleen were removed. Doctors told Rana that his chances of survival were slim.
Somehow, he pulled through. On 27 May, nearly two weeks after he was shot, Yasser woke from his coma. The very next day, he had surgery to repair part of his ureter. The next day, he returned to Gaza.
Yasser had an appointment to return to Jerusalem on 28 August for a full checkup and to undertake additional surgery.
But shortly before he was due to go he received a phone call.
“An Israeli officer simply told me that Israel would provide those injured in the Great March of Return protests one permit only,” Yasser told The Electronic Intifada about his attempt in August to keep his appointment at al-Makassed hospital.
His condition deteriorated. He suffered from inflammation of the stomach and submitted another request for a permit to travel through the Erez checkpoint to Jerusalem. Again he was refused.
Back at work
When Yasser slipped back into a coma, he was taken to Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital where doctors diagnosed him with a kidney infection. He was treated and discharged in three days, but he was increasingly concerned about his health and growing ever more desperate to be seen by specialists in Jerusalem.
“I needed surgery in the urinary system. I submitted a third request on 7 October and a fourth request on 4 November. Both were rejected. I finally gave up hope that I would get a permit to al-Makassed again,” Yasser said.
He decided to have the surgery in Gaza at al-Quds hospital. The surgery, in November, was successful, but after a few days, doctors discovered that Yasser had been poisoned by a faulty disinfectant.
He went back to intensive care, this time spending 12 days there before being discharged.
In early January, he traveled to Egypt for a full examination. There, doctors gave him a clean bill of health and told him he could go back to work.
On 28 January, he was back covering the protests even though he is convinced – as is the UN’s mission of inquiry – that the Israeli military has deliberately targeted journalists.
It is not deterring Yasser, who took one of the defining pictures of the protests, showing a demonstrator returning an Israeli-fired gas canister with a table tennis bat.
“I’m not used to staying at home,” Yasser said. “I was always in the field. I have to send a message with my camera. I am a witness.”
“I miss their smell”
On 10 August 2018, Nidal Diab, 32, joined thousands in eastern Jabaliya demonstrating for their right of return.
He had been there only minutes when he was hit in the face with a tear gas grenade.
The vegetable seller, whose family is originally from Barbara village just north of the Gaza Strip near Ashdod, was promptly taken to the Indonesian hospital in Gaza where doctors started to remove fragments from his face and head.
He lost consciousness, and a closer examination revealed that a 4-millimeter piece of shrapnel had lodged itself in his skull, causing a crack to the bone.
He was quickly moved to al-Shifa hospital, where the father of three stayed in a coma for nearly three weeks.
When he finally regained consciousness, Nidal felt numb.
“I saw a white color, and I heard a noise like the sound of a bird’s wings flapping.”
The injury turned out to be more extensive than first thought. Doctors told Nidal that the fragment had damaged a nerve center in the brain related to perception. His hearing was severely affected. He lost all sight in his left eye and all sense of smell.
The fragment remains lodged in his skull. Doctors have recommended that he get surgery outside of Gaza. But he has so far been unable to secure any support, financial or otherwise.
“I approached many organizations to help me travel, but I haven’t received a response,” Nidal told The Electronic Intifada. “I miss the smell of my children. I miss their voices and laughter.”
Reem, Nidal’s wife, said she was happy that her husband had survived, but was deeply concerned about his health.
“He still suffers from cramps after the injury and he feels dizzy all the time. I hear him crying at night.”
Despite the pain, Nidal still participates in the protests. He is, however, careful to stay far back.
And in this, he is similar to countless others who have participated in the Great March of Return and been injured as a result.
All of these individuals survived, if with damaged bodies. All of them hope that their sacrifices won’t be in vain.
All of us are inspired by their courage and their sacrifice.
Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a journalist from Gaza