GAZA – “If you love me, don’t go there,” Haitham’s father told him on the second day of Gaza border demonstrations in March 2018, demonstrations that would last for more than a year, leaving thousands injured and over 200 dead. The 19-year-old promised his parents to stay away from the fence. But, while he was sipping afternoon coffee with his friends, he became curious and decided that nothing bad would happen if he just went to take a look at the big event everyone in Gaza was talking about.
When he arrived at the site, people were gathering and the atmosphere was becoming electric. He stood aside and lit a cigarette.
Starting to smoke was the first adult decision Haitham took at the age of 13. At about the same time, he left school and got his first job selling vegetables. Spending a shekel of his father’s money on cigarettes was inconceivable to him. Haitham’s father lost his job after the factory where he had worked for 14 years shut down as exports from Gaza sharply declined. Restrictions on movement of people and goods imposed by Israel and Egypt took a heavy toll on Gaza’s economy, grinding it down to a standstill. Haitham grew up watching his father struggle to support their family of 10 working as a taxi driver. He felt it was his responsibility to step in and help.
“He was such a bright student,” Haitham’s mother lamented. “At school, everybody loved him.” Like many of his peers who came of age after Gaza was cut off from the rest of the world, the teen did not believe in the benefits of higher education. At 68 percent, the unemployment rate for Gaza’s university graduates is among the highest in the world. “They study for their university degrees, then hang their diplomas on the wall and do the same manual jobs as me. Why waste the time?” Haitham explained his decision.
A firm believer in creating opportunities where there seem to be none, he rummaged through the neighborhood, going to stores, workshops, construction sites, offering his services and asking to be taught the necessary skills.
A quick learner and an excellent networker, Haitham soon expanded his CV to include construction, car maintenance, blacksmithing and carpentry. Impulsive and impatient, he enjoyed jobs where results showed quickly. “You will soon become better than me,” the owner of the car maintenance shop where he worked once told him.
Despite these successes, there was not enough work and not enough money, as Gaza’s economy continued to decline, reaching the lowest point since the 2014 war with Israel. Haitham’s dream to provide a solid income for his family seemed as remote as ever and he was losing his patience. “I never missed an opportunity to learn something new. Then I realized that no matter how good I became, there was no work. I prefer to die than live with this feeling.”
After finishing his cigarette, Haitham mixed with the crowd that started pushing closer to the border fence. “Once you are inside the crowd, you don’t act the same way. It’s hard to control what you do,” he explained.
At one point, the fence was very close and it seemed to him that if he just ran fast enough, he could get out of Gaza. Leave behind poverty, frustrations and the confinement of the Strip, where nothing good ever happened to you. For a second, it seemed to him he was running towards a better future someplace far away, where he could live and work.
Haitham came to on a hospital bed to a wave of pain, as well as the grief and dismay of his parents. They were struggling to process the fact that only a couple of hours before he had been at home with them, and now they were seeing him with a bullet in his leg, facing the terrifying prospect of an imminent amputation. “The doctors told us that delaying the amputation would be gambling with his life,” Haitham’s mother recalls of the most difficult decision she has had to make. “When he lost his leg, I lost my whole body. I lost my soul,” she added as she broke down crying.
Haitham spent a week at the hospital, enduring terrible pain. As border violence escalated, Gaza’s fragile health system became quickly overwhelmed by the number of patients. Hospitals experienced a shortage of drugs, including painkillers.
After he returned home, there was more than physical pain to deal with. He started losing his temper much more quickly than before and gradually drifted way from his old friends. “I felt as if they were blaming me for what happened. There was always this question in the air: ‘Why did you go there?’ Someone who did not live through this will never be able to understand,” Haitham said.
Gaza has some 1,600 amputees among a population of 2 million people. Half of its workforce is unemployed and the competition on the job market is fierce. People with disabilities find themselves at a disadvantage, as roads and buildings are not wheelchair accessible and many available jobs require physical strength.
After Hatihem was discharged from the hospital he went back to selling cigarettes by the side of the road, one of his first jobs as a teenager. Each time a car would stop next to him, the prospective customer would step out of the car before he managed to stand up and hand the person a pack through the window. He felt defeated. He could not bear the thought that people were pitying him and quickly gave up the business.
As he was trying to find new opportunities, the future seemed more uncertain than ever. “Before I was constantly on the move,” said Haitham. “Being able to go many places and get there fast was how I managed to get work.”
According to the Gaza Ministry of Health, 136 people lost limbs since violence escalated along the border more than a year ago. At the physical rehabilitation sessions Haitham met other young people going through a long and painful process of learning to walk and live again. Whenever he heard about someone who was injured and lost a limb, he went to visit them. Remembering how isolated he felt in the first months of his own recovery, he tried to find the words he wished someone else had told him: “I said to them that losing a limb did not mean you would be imprisoned for the rest of your life. You can still do things.”
Last April, Haitham joined an amputee soccer team. When I went to see the training for the upcoming game, I couldn’t find him among the players stretching and warming up in the bright spring sun. Finally, I noticed him standing outside, smoking alone. He had spilled coffee on his new uniform and got so upset about it, he decided not to play. Soon, however, changing moods quickly as he does, he rejoined the training.
While he was running – with the aid of two metal crutches – and kicking the ball, sending it across the field with force and intensity, it seemed that nothing in the world could stop him. Not the geopolitical impasse that sinks Gaza and its people deeper every day, not the worsening economic crisis, not the isolation of the tiny strip of land, where travel is a privilege reserved for the fortunate few.
When we spoke about the future, I could hear a sense of uncertainty in Haitham’s tone, mixed with cautious optimism and his usual impatience. Last summer he met a girl through a camp for people with disabilities. He does not think about marriage. He does not have the money and does not want to be responsible for more people. He applied for a project grant from the Red Cross to open a video game cafe in his neighborhood. He thought it through very well and is sure he will succeed. “I sent my application a week ago and still haven’t heard anything. If they don’t agree to support my project, I will find something else. But I am fed up. Nothing ever changes.”