EYEWITNESS: CYCLING IN GAZA
On the war-torn and bomb-damaged roads of Gaza, a road cyclist is dreaming of competing in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. Alaa al-Dali’s story is one of loss and pain, but also of hope and ambition
The inspirational tale of Alaa al-Dali, who is aiming to compete in the 2020 Paralympics
The last day of the year dawns sunny and warm in Rafah, one of the largest refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. Gaza, the coastal enclave between Egypt and Israel, is just 41 kilometres long and 12 kilometres at its widest. According to official figures, there is an average of more than five thousand people per square kilometre in Gaza – only four countries or dependencies have a greater population density – Macau, Monaco, Singapore and Hong Kong. Tiny and overcrowded, Gaza is as little suited for road cycling as any city or region in the world. Yet it is where Palestine’s top cyclist lives and trains. This is the story of how a gifted athlete lost his leg, and of his incredible comeback in the most hostile 0f environments for a professional cyclist – or a human being.
Alaa al-Dali, leader of the Palestinian cycling team, is out training with two of his team-mates on the bumpy roads of Gaza. It has been particularly tense since Israeli security agents were found inside Gaza disguised as local women in November. This tension has meant endless checkpoints along the Strip’s roads since – and no matter if you are in the middle of lead-out training, you still have to stop and identify yourself for a couple of secret police officers on a cranky motorbike. That happens often.
As the riders casually pedal among bombed buildings and militia training areas, small talk turns to gossip about Team Sky’s lack of sponsorship for 2020. It took a while for Al-Dali to realise that Team Sky is the sixtime Tour de France winning team: he really struggles to relate to the grand tours.
Being a road cyclist in Gaza means there is limited space to train, and certainly no mountains to climb. The Gaza Strip is governed by Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel and is in deep political conflict with the ruling authorities in the West Bank and Egypt. Since Hamas came to power in 2007, leaving by air or sea is not permitted and border crossings have been heavily restricted due to security concerns. As a road cyclist, this means you only have a flat and overpopulated territory, half the size of Singapore, to train in, with large areas reserved exclusively for military use. It’s remarkable that an endurance sport like cycling has found a passionate base of devotees in such an unsuitable place.
“I used to wake up at six am, and trained for four or five hours a day. Normally that meant 140 or 150km in good weather conditions, sometimes 120km if it is windy or when the streets are crowded. We struggle because Gaza is so small; the longest road is about 35km. We are always using the same less-crowded streets, back and forth in order to do the 120km session,” Al-Dali reflects while waiting for his teammate to fix a flat tyre. “The few roads we have are in terrible condition. The wheels of the bikes get damaged so often,” he sighs.
Far away from the vast beauty and mountainous terrain of the Dolomites, it is not surprising that the cyclists here have focused all their attention on sprinting. Cavendish and Sagan are the names you hear most often, with the Manx sprinter in particular revered as an absolute legend for Gaza’s cycling community.
“We don’t have sponsorship or salaries for riders, so we have to buy bikes for ourselves and we do our best to help each other to train,” says Al-Dali. “Hoping to participate in international tournaments is our reward: my dream is to meet well-known champions. My dream was to compete against Mark Cavendish.”
BARRIERS TO PARTICIPATION
Wanting to compete internationally is hard enough, but Al-Dali had more prosaic practicalities to deal with when he started out. He had to get a road bike that was good enough for training. General bike shops are rare in the Gaza Strip and with an average salary of less than $2,000 a year, the market is non-existent. Al-Dali worked as a builder every day after training to support his family. His first break came in 2016 when two Turkish ships delivered 14,000 tonnes of aid to Gaza which included road bikes gifted from the President of Turkey. Since then, Al-Dali has followed his passion. Succeeding as a cyclist might be a long shot but there is 60 per cent youth unemployment in Gaza, so sport is taken very seriously as a way to seek a better future. Al-Dali quickly rose up the rankings of the local cycling scene and established himself among the best Palestinian cyclists. Then in 2018, he won the national road championship. The race was sponsored by the Palestinian Olympic Committee in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme and the government of Japan. He was selected with two other cyclists to represent Palestine abroad, starting with the Asian Games which were to be held in Jakarta in August 2018. Al-Dali recalls the moment perfectly when the Japanese ambassador presented him with his medal. That was supposed to be the starting point of his career as a professional cyclist.
The opportunity transcended the sporting significance of the event, especially with an athlete coming from one of the most hotly disputed territories in the Middle East, where residents have no rights to nationality.
“For many athletes, raising the Palestinian flag in international competitions is a form of resistance. Peaceful resistance,” says Mohammed El Arabi, Palestinian Paralympic Committee member and president of the Peace Club for Persons with Disabilities.
Apart from the political significance, racing internationally is the only way for a cyclist from the Gaza Strip to challenge himself on different roads, altitudes and gradients, or learn to read a long race in a packed peloton. Sure enough, the small team practices the art of leading out every day by warming up as much as they can by riding back and forth on the short
"We struggle because Gaza is so small; the longest road is about 35km. We are always using the same less- crowded streets, back and for th in order to do the 120km session”
routes available before starting their sprints. With low winds on flat roads, the average timing for the last four kilometres of their effort is four minutes. However, no matter how much power you can produce in your legs, it is hard to consider yourself a professional sprinter if you have no experience of surviving through 200km of a hilly race to even get to the sprint. As the Palestinian cyclists well know, it is one thing to compete for a win; it’s another to even get the chance to compete for a win.
Al-Dali is well aware of this deficiency but he has had no choice. As he turns 22 this year, he has never been able to leave the Gaza Strip. “In the last couple of years, we had many invitations to compete abroad: Egypt, Tunisia… In 2017 we were also invited to compete in the Arab Union in Algeria, but our requests to leave the Strip have always been denied. As national athletes, we are supposed to stay away from politics. We are just playing a sport, but they always restrain us with politics. We are denied travel because of international relations between Gaza and other countries. Egypt closed the border because of conflict between Hamas and the Egyptian president. On the other side, Israel has been refusing all our applications to travel outside Gaza and to achieve our dreams as Palestinians. If you get refused many times you may be banned forever from entering Israel, and that is the worst nightmare for athletes in Gaza. They denied our papers for political purpose: they consider us just like politicians, or as if we were all terrorists.” The official policy of the Government of Israel declares: “Gaza Strip residents who are members of national and local sports teams may enter Israel to travel to Judea and Samaria and abroad, for the purpose of official team activities. Entry is also approved for members of the Olympic Committee and the Palestinian Football Association.” When talking with local sport clubs in the Gaza Strip, another version of the same story comes out, every time. Securing a sport visa is a complex procedure, and many things can go wrong. Emerging talents from Gaza face serious difficulties, especially if they wish to travel to attend non-Olympic races or training camps.
“Sometimes they give permission for only four or three members of the team, but other teams from different countries, they can all be there, so we can’t participate in the competition,” said Mohammed El Arabi. Going through the Egyptian border presents administrative obstacles for Palestinian athletes.
Al-Dali may have been selected to compete at the 2018 Asian Games but still could not be sure he would be allowed to leave Gaza to travel to the competition. He feared he might lose his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prove himself on the international stage because of border retaliations. That is why he decided to take part in the first March of Return protest on the March 30, 2018. This choice would change not only his career but his whole life, forever.
“The bullet I was shot with was like a small grenade. It almost disintegrated the bone of my leg. The doctor said he had never seen anything like it”
The March of Return protest is an ongoing mass demonstration that has been taking place every Friday since March 2018 at the border of the Gaza Strip. It is highly controversial and divisive, to the extent that different sides involved cannot even agree on the name of the protest itself. Gaza’s political parties, thousands of participants and their international sympathisers call it the Great March of Return protest. They are demanding that the Israeli government allow people and goods to circulate more freely so as to end the 12-year blockade of Gaza. They are also claiming the right of Palestine refugees to return to their homes, a right that has been recognised by the United Nations but which poses a demographic threat to Israel. However, the Israeli government and its supporters worldwide say the demonstration is a Hamas-backed riot that threatens the security and integrity of the Israeli state, with belligerent participants trying to violently cross the fence that divides the two territories and potentially harm Israeli citizens. According to BBC reports, Israeli officials allowed soldiers to fire live ammunition, under certain rules, at anyone protesting less than 300 metres from the border fence – lately reduced to 100 metres. As a result, over 150 people including protesters, journalists, paramedics and minors have been killed according to the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories and Amnesty International. One Israeli soldier lost his life. More than 10,000 protesters have been wounded, 121 of these wounded have lost a limb. Among them: Alaa Al-Dali.
“I wanted to go and participate in my cycling kit with my bike, to express my feelings about being denied as an athlete, demanding my rights as every person would do anywhere in the world,” he says.
Al-Dali is sitting at home now, with his brothers and one of his friends. Somebody in the room suggests he doesn’t talk about this, that it might be too painful to remember. On that first day of the March of Return, Al-Dali remembers standing approximately 150 metres from the border fence between Israel and Gaza. He did not expect to be shot; he claims he was peacefully protesting with his bike and his team-mates. Suddenly, an explosive bullet shot by Israeli forces on the other side of the fence hit his right leg. It is difficult to imagine how it feels to quickly change from being a top athlete to just a number among thousands of casualties.
“The bullet I was shot with was like a small grenade. It almost disintegrated the bone of my leg, 22cm of it. The muscle, arteries and veins were totally damaged. The doctor said he had never seen anything like this before.” Medical staff believe it was a miracle he did not suffer a hypovolemic shock due to the severe loss of blood pressure. His heart kept pumping just enough for him to survive. Most likely this was only possible because he was an athlete in good condition at the time; others would have surely died. Meanwhile, far away from Al-Dali’s personal drama, it was decided that none of the injured demonstrators would be allowed to leave Gaza for medical treatment because they had engaged in what was considered a terrorist-backed protest. His only option was the overcrowded and underfunded hospital in Gaza City. Al-Dali was told that in order to save his life, his right leg had to be amputated above the knee. But without that limb, he felt he was going to die anyway.
“I begged the doctor to try his best before amputating it because my dreams as an athlete are tied up with these legs. Without one of them, I felt I was nothing. I spent eight days in the operating theatre. Every day I had surgery. I felt so much pain, and the bullet’s fragments infected it all. One week went by and I needed to make a choice: either the amputation, or losing my life. I gave my consent to cut the leg. It was a very hard decision.”
Sitting at home, he explains the details of the worst moment of his young life while his family go about their business around him. His mother brings tea, his father is preparing cucumbers which they regularly donate to charity groups in Gaza City and his brothers are just hanging around. They seem used to the media attention Al-Dali has been attracting since he lost his leg. While controversy was brewing with the Giro d’Italia starting in Israel just a month after the amputation, his story made headlines. Throughout early 2018, Al-Dali recalls trying to deal with his trauma while many came to his door asking for interviews. At first he let them in, hoping that publicity might help get his cycling career back on track. Perhaps somebody would get in touch and help him to travel to Europe to get a high-tech sports prosthetic. He would have to travel because the materials used to make sports prosthetics are strictly prohibited for import to Gaza. But little good came out of the media attention. He decided he had to try to come back to the sport, deal with the situation himself and go ahead with what he has. Less than three months after the injury, he announced his plans to start Gaza’s first paracycling team. “I am determined and I will not back down from my dreams,” he says.
Al-Dali’s biggest aspiration has always been to represent Palestine at the Olympics. He has now simply refocused his long-term goal towards the Paralympics instead. But if cycling is a niche sport in Gaza, paracyling is off the radar. However, three major wars in Gaza in the last 10 years have sadly produced 130,000 people who suffer some sort of disability. It is noticeable as you walk down the street. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, almost seven people in 100 are disabled, and most of them are young. It’s a bitter irony that there is great potential in Gaza to build up a generation of parasport champions. This is what Al-Dali may have had in mind when he approached Paralympic official Mohammed El Arabi with a blunt suggestion.
" I realised 120 people lost a leg in the past months. We could build a team around Alaa as their leader, by organising workshops run by Alaa wi th these newly injured people"
“Alaa came and proposed we start a paracycling federation in Gaza,” recalled El Arabi. “I replied that there are no cyclists. Only you, Alaa, is trying to do paracycling. But then I realised 120 people lost a leg in the past months. We could build a team around Alaa by organising workshops run by Alaa with these newly injured people and see if they want to join the team.”
BUILDING A TEAM
Al-Dali’s first stop for his rehabilitation and potentially finding new paracycling teammates is the Artificial Limbs and Polio Centre (ALPC). It is the only prosthetics centre in Gaza, set up by local government and the International Committee of the Red Cross. He will be in rehabilitation until February, with psychological support, physical training and a basic prosthetic leg.
He is not alone. Since the protests began, the ALPC has taken in 74 new amputee patients, a few of them former athletes like Al-Dali. The Red Cross promotes Paralympic sports in Gaza by funding and supporting a successful pro wheelchair basketball team with more than 200 members. Al-Dali’s charismatic influence is pushing Ahmed Mousa, the Physical Rehabilitation Project Manager of the Gaza delegation of the Red Cross, to seriously consider the idea of funding his project. “This is a good chance for the Paralympic Committee to work with someone like Alaa. He already has the experience in road cycling, and he could advocate for paracycling. This is not a promise on our side but we are keen on exploring the possibility,” he said.
Mohammed El Arabi is seeking the full support of the Paralympic Committee and donors abroad while trying to better understand the rules of paracycling. This is new to them so they need to draw on the knowledge of other international federations. The most obvious way to let the world know they exist would be to help Al-Dali to compete abroad as a paracyclist. The first chance came from the Asian Paralympic Committee (APC) which invited Al-Dali to the 2018 Asian Para Games, held last October in Jakarta, Indonesia. The APC obtained visas and a coach, while the UCI provided racing permits and the organisers covered his flights. But again, the Egypt border was closed, and he could not apply on the Israeli side for fear of being blacklisted. Later, in November, Al-Dali and Mohammed received invitations to speak in France and advocate for athletes’ rights in the Gaza Strip but the French government did not grant them a visa, fearing Al-Dali would remain in Europe and seek asylum.
Frustration is building: they want to bring the paracycling team to the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo but they are running out of time. To qualify, a team must compete in at least two international tournaments, one in the Arab championship and one in Asia. Even once they get the team started, the denial of travel so far isn’t promising. Another issue is how to import bikes for a team of riders while the Gaza blockade continues.
“I think it will be difficult for a team to qualify for Tokyo. If there is a chance, Alaa needs to receive a special invitation recognising that he is newly injured and he is a pilot to establish paracycling in the Middle East,” said El Arabi. The special invitations Mohammed speaks about are not handed out easily, although Al-Dali might have a powerful ally.
“After I was shot, the Japanese ambassador who rewarded me with the gold medal as best cyclist of Palestine last year met with me two or three times. Almost all his visits to Gaza included meeting with me. I asked him to help establish a team for the Paralympic Games, the first time [it would] happen in Palestine. He made a promise he will do his best.”
THE DREAM OF FREEDOM
On the main road through the Gaza Strip which connects Rafah to Gaza City, early-morning commuters are not yelling any more at that cyclist who keeps occupying a little space in the traffic. Pedalling with just one leg exhausts Al-Dali after just a few kilometres and his recovery time now takes up to six days. He feels his prosthetic is not compensating enough for the loss of his limb, so almost the full weight of his body is still carried by the remaining leg. He still hopes there is a way he can get a prosthetic that could help in feeling less pain and possibly be used to also ride his bike. That will also allow him to train harder and strengthen his left leg for the Paralympics whenever he gets the chance to compete.
“I still have the same dream. My determination got even stronger than before to fulfil this passion,” he says. “It is true that I wasn’t able to raise the Palestinian flag with two legs. I will do it with one leg.”