Palestinian amputees tackle new challenge on pitch
DEIR EL BALAH - In fluorescent orange jerseys, footballers manoeuvred across the artificial turf of a pitch in the Gaza Strip -- leaning on their metal crutches for support.
"Today I can continue to play football," said Islam Amum, 27.
He used to be a goalkeeper, until he lost a leg in an Israeli air strike during the 2014 Gaza war.
Amum is one of 15 members of the only amputee football squad in the Gaza Strip. Aged from 16 to 40, they train every Monday afternoon in Deir el-Balah, in the centre of the coastal enclave.
They even have their own team song circulating on social media, captain Mohammed Juifel said proudly.
"Our anthem explains that the handicapped are part of society, including in football," says Juifel, 21, whose right leg was amputated after a car crash when he was 13.
Abd al-Majid Abu Milak, 25, lost his hand in an Israeli shell blast.
"The training is difficult but fun," he said. "I feel like a goalie who can compete."
Every day the players exercise in a room reserved for them at the Deir el-Balah association for the handicapped.
The team owes its inception to Fuad Abu Ghaliun, a 62-year-old member of the Palestinian parliament.
"I got the idea of forming this team by watching a football match between Turkish and British amputees at the end of last year," he said.
"Then I thought I could make a dream come true for hundreds of amputees in Gaza."
He labelled the squad "the team of heroes" and said he hoped to form a local disabled league and one day join football's world governing body FIFA.
'The victory of Palestine'
Most of the side's players were wounded by Israeli fire.
Israel has fought three wars with Islamist movement Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, since 2008.
The Palestinian enclave and its two million residents have been under an Israeli blockade for more than 10 years.
During the most recent confrontation in 2014, more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, mostly civilians. Seventy-four people were killed on the Israeli side, mainly soldiers.
The football squad's organisers now hope amputees wounded by Israeli fire in recent violence on the Gaza border can also join up.
Clashes broke out along the frontier on March 30 following mass demonstrations calling for Palestinian refugees to return to their homes now inside Israel.
Ongoing violence has since seen at least 139 Palestinians killed and more than 4,000 wounded by Israeli fire.
The majority were involved in protests and clashes, but others were seeking to breach or damage the border fence.
No Israelis have been killed.
The health ministry in Gaza says hundreds of the wounded have undergone amputations.
To train the "team of heroes", volunteer coach Khaled al-Mahbuh, 32, has sought advice from doctors and studied video clips online.
Organisers have so far staged two five-a-side matches with teams drawn from the squad, attracting about 3,000 spectators, according to Mahbuh.
The games, Mahbuh said, "give the public pleasure, happiness."
Ibrahim Khattab, 13, lost his left foot during the 2014 war.
He takes part in training but has not yet played in a match, although he has great ambitions.
"I dream of becoming a famous player and lifting up the cup after the victory of Palestine," he said.