On March 30, 2018, Gazan cyclist Alaa al-Dali was standing 250 metres away from the tall, barbed-wire laced fence separating Palestine and Israel. Holding onto his road bike, clad in neck-to-shin lycra, he watched as tens of thousands of Palestinians walked along the border in the Great March of Return protests, when suddenly he collapsed onto the floor.
A sniper had shot him in his right leg, as the Israeli military opened fire on protestors. Over the course of the next 12 months, as the demonstrations continued, 266 people were killed and 30,000 more were injured, according to the health ministry of Gaza. Alaa’s bone was shattered, and he was forced to have his leg amputated. With that went his dream of riding in the Olympics for Palestine.
But Alaa’s cycling story wouldn’t end there. Three months later he announced his goal of becoming Palestine’s first para-cyclist, and he would eventually form the Gaza Sunbirds para-cycling team. Now consisting of six members, the team is entirely made up of cyclists who lost their legs in the March of Return protests and other previous attacks. Until 16 days ago, they had been training in a bid to enter the 2024 Paralympics, due to be held in Paris.
On October 7, Hamas forces crossed the border into southern Israel, surprising the country with an attack that killed 1,400 and captured more than 200. Since then, Israel have retaliated with a brutal siege, and a relentless barrage of airstrikes. On Tuesday (October 17) an airstrike hit the Al-Ahli al-Arabi Hospital, with the Palestinian health ministry reporting that 500 people were killed in the blast, placing responsibility on the Israeli military. Israel have denied wrongdoing, instead blaming “terrorists” from the Islamic Jihad group. Islamic Jihad have also denied involvement, claiming that they were not active in Gaza at the time. In the run up to the bombing Israel had issued evacuation orders to 22 hospitals in Northern Gaza.
The siege of Gaza has created a humanitarian disaster. Food, medical aid, fuel, electricity, and water have been heavily restricted, which some human rights organisations have stated amounts to “collective punishment” – a war crime under international law. On Friday October 13, Israel issued a warning to 1 million Palestinians living in the north of the strip – incuding Gaza City – to evacuate. “Everyone is afraid, everyone is actually terrified. They’re afraid of losing their loved ones, afraid of losing their own lives. When you look into people’s eyes, you might see them smiling but you can tell that they’re scared – they’re hoping they won’t get bombed and killed,” says Mohammed Abu Julia, 33, the manager of the Gaza Sunbirds team, and a local journalist. He’s writing from the Southern Gaza strip, and we are unable to talk directly because of Israeli restrictions on electricity supplies and internet access. “I am between Rafah and Khan Younis, [where] Israel has claimed is safe and is still striking with bombs.”
With a total area of just 365 square kilometres and a population of over 2 million, the strip is small, and the third most densely populated ‘political unit’ in the world. Approximately half of those living in the strip are children.
“I could ride the entirety of Gaza on my bike within three hours – 150 kilometres in three hours,” Mohammed says. “Gaza is done. They have us cornered. Blocked from the sea, blocked from the East, blocked from the North, and blocked from the West. We are in a big prison, and they just bring in water, food, cigarettes, and they give us some electricity – six hours of it [a day].”
Mohammed has been on the move since the evacuation order, staying with others kind enough to open their doors in the time of crisis. But he is in a more privileged position than others, with a relatively well-paying job and the ability to afford basic needs to keep himself alive. “Anytime I’d be somewhere and find canned foods, flour, sugar, rice, water – you know, the basic life necessities – milk for my one-year-old daughter, diapers,” he says. “I bought huge quantities, because when you go for sanctuary at someone’s place, it is wrong not to share the necessities you bought with the people hosting you in their supposedly safe area. I am able to do this because I am a journalist and I have a car.”
“Others aren’t so lucky, they have to walk,” he continues. “Some people who had been displaced from the North to the South walked there. They couldn’t carry any canned foods or heavy things – just their own children who can’t walk on their own.”
Mohammed’s family have taken the decision to split up, with his wife and children staying in one home, while his father and siblings stay in another. “We sleep in separate places, so that at least some of us survive,” he explains. “Others have a different situation – some people are choosing to sleep all in one room so that if they get striked they all get wiped out together so that none of them have to live alone. Because no one is going to fill the hole in their hearts if they lose their families.”
In 1948, the nation of Israel was created as 750,000 Palestinians were violently forced to leave their ancestral homes as Zionist military forces launched an offensive across villages in Palestine, declaring independence and the right to the land. Now known as the Nakba (catastrophe), it would be the beginning of a tumultuous period in the Middle East, particularly for Palestinian people. Over the past 75 years, Israel has settled into and invaded even more territory – marked by the Six Day War in 1967, which saw Israel occupy the whole of historic Palestine, leaving some 70 per cent of Gaza’s population officially registered as refugees. It’s within this context that Hamas was created and came to power in Gaza in 2007, after winning the 2006 election and forcing out the secular Fatah government in a brief civil war.
Israel responded by blockading the strip, making conditions for those living inside even more difficult. “The Israeli occupation had already been putting a lot of pressure on Palestinians and limiting everything going into Gaza,” Mohammed says. “We have six miles of coastline, and no one is allowed to fish.”
For people growing up in the Gaza Strip, who are so used to violence, the danger of airstrikes, and Israel’s control of essential resources – the situation now feels like a tipping point. “Honestly, ever since I was 10 and became aware about all this happening, this is the first time that I feel like the situation is catastrophic,” Mohammed says. “The situation is completely catastrophic in all aspects. Water, the environment – there’s huge amounts of trash in the streets because the municipality can’t remove any of it. There’s no fuel, no electricity, no water.
“They keep calling all the wars that had happened before wars, but they were actually intentional acts of aggression targeting Gaza or certain individuals,” he alleges. “This time it’s a one-sided war – it’s an extermination war from one very strong side, an oppressor that is supported by the US and a lot of European countries. I have no idea what they’re thinking when they give them the green light to bomb a hospital, when they give them the green light to hit a home they know is filled with children, women, and civilians. They bombed the market in Mukhayam Jabalya. Ever since the beginning they’ve been bombing places they know are very active and filled with people.”
It’s a desperately tragic situation, for a team that had found meaning and purpose in the tough conditions. All of the Sunbirds members have lost loved ones in the past fortnight, and with Israeli senior officials hinting at a full-scale ground invasion to come, it’s likely to get even worse. With training for the Paralympics off the cards now, the team members have turned to helping the community in any way they can. On Wednesday, October 18, the team handed out over 300 kgs of bread to 1,800 people in the city of Rafah. It’s a small-yet-significant contribution – to 0.01 per cent of the city’s population – but they hope to be able to continue to offer support in the coming days.
Commenting on the distribution’s success in a statement seen by Huck, the Gaza Sunbirds founder and captain Alaa al-Dali said: “Some people started crying when they received the bread. Tears of joy. For bread. People were crying over receiving bread, something that was always available to us is now precious. People used to suffer from the lack of other things but not something as basic as bread.
“I was out, and my wife and family were very afraid for me,” he continued. “They were afraid of getting bombed while I wasn’t there too. But it was important for me to help people and I was concerned about getting this bread to people in need.”