'I can't run to save my life, how will I evacuate': Gaza's disabled face a death sentence
According to a report by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in 2022, roughly 93,000 disabled Palestinians are living in the occupied territories, accounting for 2.1% of the total population. An estimated 53% of these individuals live in Gaza, while the rest are located in the occupied West Bank.
Haj Mustafa Khoudary — the father of Palestinian journalist Mustafa Khoudary — is one of the thousand Palestinians who have been left physically disabled by the previous Israeli wars in Gaza. He told The New Arab more about some of the current challenges disabled people in Gaza are facing amid the ongoing war.
“Airstrikes and attacks are difficult for me and all people with special needs. In the event of an airstrike, my children have to choose between carrying me or carrying their young children,” Haj Mustafa told The New Arab.
“When there are attacks, we can't hide in safe places or run to save our lives, we just depend on God's mercy,” Haj Mustafa added.
"Every corner of the shelter is full, ordinary people are already struggling to access basic needs like using the toilet or washing their bodies, so for individuals with disabilities it is 10 times worse"
The Israeli army often provides warnings only minutes before launching strikes on civilian buildings, nowhere near enough time for people with limited mobility to escape, but according to Haj Mustafa, no warnings were given when they launched an airstrike on his town Beit Lahia.
“I ask myself, why are the Israelis always seeking to destroy us in every way?” Haj Mustafa told The New Arab.
“We get no break from their cruelty and evilness, every time I feel like my children can have a better life than I did and develop their future despite all the obstacles here in Gaza, they come and shatter our hopes,” Haj Mustafa added.
The Gaza Strip has endured a prolonged and tight blockade set by Israel and Egypt for 17 years which severely limits mobility and access to healthcare and other devices necessary for individuals with disabilities.
Regular power breakdowns disrupt the freedom and fundamental rights of these marginalised communities who rely heavily upon electricity to move around utilizing lift equipment and mobility scooters.
There have been prior requests issued by Palestinian non-governmental organisations and supporters of human rights, urging Israel to permit the importation of these devices as a stepping stone to improving the living circumstances of these residents.
The blockade was already a form of collective punishment for the civilian population living under the occupation, but this war is an unmeasurable punishment, especially for disabled individuals in Gaza.
“I am hearing stories with sickening details of suffering and endless challenges created by this war that disabled people are facing,” Youssef told The New Arab.
There were already very limited facilities provided for people with disabilities who had a different quality of life.
Lack of accessibility is a major difficulty, and at the moment, it is a matter of life and death.
People with mobility issues such as those confined to a wheelchair are faced with overwhelming challenges in accessing shelters. According to Youssef, those with physical disabilities are left with no alternative but to remain at home, and pray for safety, putting them at a heightened risk of death, whilst many are also homeless and are left alone.
According to the Palestinian Housing Ministry in Gaza, at least 45% of homes in Gaza have been destroyed or damaged during the hostilities.
“Many are experiencing shortness of breath, and blueness in their face with the inability to move, so normally certain devices are needed and used to provide them with oxygen to help with breathing, but with the current state they are in and the absence of power, it is a countdown to death as these devices are inaccessible,” Youssef explained to The New Arab.
“The Israeli military failed to provide the required advance warning of attacks, which is mandatory according to international humanitarian law, to prevent or minimize harm to civilian populations,” said Youssef.
According to Human Rights Watch, individuals with disabilities are among those suffering the most as a result of the Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip. Even during normal circumstances, Gaza’s residents experience regular power disruptions and only have between eight to sixteen hours, which specifically burdens those with disabilities by limiting their means of communication.
No medicine, more dead
By impeding the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza, Israel has caused scarcities in essential medical gear, supplies, and drugs. Furthermore, their military strikes have intensified the challenge of obtaining necessary medication and medical equipment.
“People need their medications for their diabetes, hypertension, haemophilia, and even pain relief medicines for the nerves, their health will significantly deteriorate without access to their medicine,” said, Mohamed Saleh, a Palestinian pharmacist.
“Those with developmental disabilities may experience seizures or become aggressive while frightened by shelling,” he added. These stories are commonplace according to Mohamed.
The evacuation order issued by Israel can bring about added anxiety and trauma for individuals with disabilities, who may struggle to leave the comfort of their homes or have become displaced either in shelters, tents or on the streets.
War has a catastrophic effect on the mental health and well-being of civilians with disabilities, according to Nadine Kilani, a Palestinian-Jordanian psychologist who had contributed to several seminars in Gaza through her work with NGOs.
“These individuals will develop behaviour that will hinder their ability to function effectively. The most common conditions are depression, anxiety and psychosomatic problems such as insomnia, impairment and severity of appetite change, and difficulty concentrating,” said Nadine.
“Routine is very important for these individuals' health, any disarray can jeopardize the progress they make with certain things in life,” Nadine explained.
Unsuitable environment in shelters
Shelters are struggling to accommodate the growing number of displaced persons, with an average of over 2.5 individuals per shelter exceeding the established limit. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) states that these shelters are unlikely to cater to the needs of disabled individuals, who account for approximately 15% of those who have lost their homes.
“Every corner of the shelter is full, ordinary people are already struggling to access basic needs like using the toilet or washing their bodies, so for individuals with disabilities it is 10 times worse,” said Nadine.
Most shelters are not equipped with facilities that are easily accessible to the disabled. Toilets are squat style in most of the shelters, making daily tasks extra difficult.
Lack of access
Inadequate accommodations in nearby communities also limit the feasibility of disabled individuals adhering to evacuation orders as most areas often lack the necessary infrastructure to cater to the specific needs of those living with disabilities.
The present devastation has worsened an already grim and dire situation with Gaza's inadequate infrastructure on the basic rights of persons with disabilities.
Since Israel initiated its aggressive attacks on the Gaza Strip on October 7, these people have encountered considerable obstacles, ones that have turned their lives upside down.
Walaa Salim, who has leg paralysis and is from Tal Al Hawa in Gaza told The New Arab about her frightening journey to evacuate to the South and the nightmares she and her family had faced to keep her safe and manage to escape to her relatives' house in Deir al-Balah.
“At first we were very reluctant to leave due to my situation in the wheelchair, but each hour that passed we felt the magnitude of the powerful blasts and our house vibrating before our neighbourhood got attacked,” she told The New Arab.
Walaa and her family’s life changed drastically after they had to flee their destroyed home and pray for the best.
The legal provisions of both international humanitarian law and international human rights law safeguard the rights of individuals with disabilities during times of war. However, in Palestine, people with disabilities have been adversely affected by Israel’s attacks.
“My brother and father took turns carrying me while we witnessed numerous lifeless bodies, blood strewn about, and homes reduced to rubble. Eventually, we found a donkey cart that allowed us to board due to my disability,” Walaa said.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Walaa has been working relentlessly on herself to develop her skills and integrate herself into society. She has undertaken several Photoshop courses independently and has started teaching other girls in the neighbourhood who have a similar interest.
“Most of them are now dead bodies,” she told The New Arab.
Rodayna Raydan is a Lebanese British journalism graduate from Kingston University in London covering Lebanon
Follow her on Twitter: @Rodayna_462