How do people with disabilities cope when Israel bombs Gaza?

When Israel invaded southern Gaza in 2014, Alaa al-Nahal, who is deaf, could not hear the Israeli attacks but he could feel them. Above, several men assist a woman wounded in the 2014 Israeli airstrikes on Khan Younis in southern Gaza.

Ramadan El-Agha APA images

Emad Qudeih was sitting with his friends on the road close to his house in Khan Younis when a loud explosion shook the area. It was May 2016, and he was only 13. Everyone panicked and fled, leaving him alone.

“I attempted to flee, but I didn’t know what road was safe,” Qudeih, now 20, said. “I’m blind. I just froze and awaited my fate.”

He remained still, frozen in fear, until his father rushed to his side and took him home. The Israeli military had bombed the area, and this was not the first time Qudeih had been caught in the violence of the occupation.

In the 2014 war, Qudeih and his family had to evacuate their home during Israeli ground invasions of the southern Gaza Strip.

All Palestinians in Gaza are vulnerable during Israeli attacks, but blind Palestinians are even more at risk.

Medications of no use

Qudeih was not born blind; he lost his sight gradually.

In the first grade, he lost sight in his right eye due to retinal detachment. Two years later he lost sight in his left eye for the same reason. He was 7 years old.

Between the ages of 7 and 14, he had surgery after surgery at St. John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital.

“The surgeries proved successful, and I was able to see for a while,” Qudeih said, “but a haze would eventually obscure my vision.”

It turned out that there was bleeding in his retinas. The doctors said the bleeding would go away with time and medications like eye drops.

“But the medications were of no use,” Qudeih said.

In 2015, when he was 12 years old, he traveled to Spain and underwent five surgeries in three months, but he lost vision completely several months after the surgeries.

Qudeih spoke to The Electronic Intifada at the Islamic University of Gaza, where he is pursuing a degree in English translation.

“In addition to proving myself to my professors,” he said, “it took me time to learn to navigate university facilities.”

He counts his steps while walking, so he can retrace them. He has also memorized various routes to help him get around.

“I want to be an activist who appears on TV, speaking both Arabic and English,” Qudeih said, “describing our needs as both disabled people and as Palestinians.”

“No one is going to hire a deaf person”

Alaa al-Nahal, 52, was watching the news on television during Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza, when suddenly he felt rumbling very close to his home, though he heard nothing.

“I felt the floor shaking and understood that the Israelis were bombing very near,” he said. “My wife hurried to me, telling me that it is better to evacuate the house.”The family gathered their belongings to evacuate Rafah – Gaza’s southernmost city. Israel declared a ground invasion on the Gaza Strip from the south.As the family were preparing to leave, a strong explosion shattered the windows.“They didn’t give us any warning [of the bombing],” al-Nahal said.Despite the terror of that night, al-Nahal said he didn’t face any special challenges during the war.“I found no difficulties other than not feeling safe in my house.”Many Palestinians in Gaza, living under siege, might say the same thing. But when al-Nahal was born, he had a fever that caused his hearing loss.Al-Nahal communicates with sign language, and his wife translated for us during our interview at their home.

He said his condition does not feel isolating, though he wishes he could find work.From 2001, al-Nahal had worked as a driver to support his four daughters and one son. However, when his car broke down in 2020, he had to sell it. Currently, the family receives social welfare payments to provide the daily necessities – though those payments are not always reliable.

“There is no income, and no one is going to hire a deaf person,” al-Nahal said. Sometimes his siblings help him out. But unemployment is already over 40 percent in Gaza, the result of the Israeli blockade, and his chances for work are small.

Occupation doesn’t differentiate

Hasan al-Zaalan, the head of the Palestinian General Union of People with Disabilities, explained how people with disabilities face many obstacles during Israel’s attacks.“People with disabilities face many obstacles amid wars, such as having limited mobility as they escape the bombing,” he said.

“The occupation does not differentiate between people with disabilities and others in wars. They do not respect their rights. In the last war, we had three … martyrs [who had disabilities] and others were injured.”

On 6 April 2018, Mahmoud Malakha, 34, who lives in the Shujaiya neighborhood of Gaza City, was going to retrieve the key to his coffee and snack shop from an employee who was attending the Great March of Return along the boundary with Israel.

He was among the other protesters when he “felt a powerful electric shock in my leg and fell to the ground,” he said. “A sniper’s bullet struck my leg.”

After he fell to the ground, people crowded around him and he was carried to an ambulance.

This was not the first injury inflicted on him by an Israeli weapon.

In the 2009 war on Gaza, he was on a bus with his friends when an Israeli airstrike hit the bus. Malakha was the only survivor. It is not a day in his life that he feels comfortable talking about in detail.

“I spent one year and seven months lying in bed, unable to move my hands or neck,” he said. “I had to wear diapers because I was not able to go to the bathroom.”

Nine years later, he was again rushed to the hospital. Doctors there insisted on immediate amputation, but Malakha refused.

Over the next two years, he had dozens of surgeries to help him regain use of his leg. When he developed bone cancer in 2020, he underwent chemotherapy, but amputation of his leg was the only way to eradicate the cancer completely.

In September 2022, Malakha had his 89th surgery, by his own count. He woke up seven hours later to continue his life with one leg.

“I approached the situation with a sense of normalcy,” he said. “After the operation, I returned home, rested, woke up the next morning and went to the market.”

As compensation for his lost leg, Malakha receives about $165 each month. A compensation that barely puts food on the table for his wife and the four children.

To support his family, Malakha opened a coffee shop in Gaza’s port. But there were too many challenges to overcome and it failed.

So he became a taxi driver.

“Surrendering to people’s opinions and the harsh reality would only lead to excessive overthinking and stress,” he said. “I made a conscious decision to not give up.”

In the 2014 war, when he still had both legs, his house was damaged by a nearby strike, and his family had to evacuate.

“There is no doubt that getting out of the second floor is hard. I can focus my mind on the difficulty, but I don’t want to. It will only hurt me and destroy my children. Adapting to this reality is the only option I have.”

Khaled El-Hissy is a journalist from Jabaliya in the Gaza Strip.