GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- The players race across the pitch 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 militant 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 imposed by Israel and Egypt 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. 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 the 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 organized violent protests along the heavily-guarded frontier with Israel for several months in 2018 and 2019, with the aim of easing the blockade of Gaza. Thousands turned out every Friday, many of them bused in by Hamas, an Islamic militant group hostile to Israel. 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. They usually aimed for the legs, sparing the lives of demonstrators but often leaving them with permanent disabilities. Many were shot far from the border fence.
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.
Rights groups accuse Israel of using excessive force and of failing to hold its soldiers accountable for deaths and serious injuries.
Israel says its forces acted to prevent thousands of Palestinians — including potentially armed militants — from pouring across the border. It says it investigated allegations of wrongdoing and held soldiers accountable. Israel and Western countries view Hamas as a terrorist group.
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."