Israel's war on Gaza compounds challenges for the disabled

As if Palestinians didn’t have enough problems, evacuating those with physical or mental disabilities in Gaza poses added danger.

First-hand accounts from Palestinians taking care of loved ones with disabilities amid Israel's relentless aggression on Gaza.
Aliaa Abou Khaddour
First-hand accounts from Palestinians taking care of loved ones with disabilities amid Israel's relentless aggression on Gaza.

Israel's war on Gaza compounds challenges for the disabled

Eight days after Israel launched its war on Gaza on 7 October, more than 1.3 million people in the northern Gaza Strip were told to move by the Israeli army.

That evacuation order did not take the needs of people with disabilities such as autism into account, nor did it consider the needs of their families.

For them, safe transit and accommodation are next to impossible. Many had no choice but to stay behind, hoping for an eventual rescue.

Fatima Ayoub lives in the Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip with her husband and five children.

Her oldest son, Hussein, 14, has had autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other health conditions since birth.

Fatima, 37, said she is torn between ensuring the well-being of Hussein, who cannot navigate the streets safely and the safety of her other four children at home amid the war.

“After much discussion with their father and getting information about road conditions from displaced relatives, we decided not to evacuate, despite the risks,” she says.

Fatima is torn between the wellbeing of her son, who cannot navigate the streets safely, and the safety of her other four children, at home amidst war.

Her worry stems from her inability to control Hussein's movements, as he is non-verbal and unaware of road hazards.

Her anxiety heightened when she learned of tanks and troops on Salah al-Din Road, the only path the Israeli army had set for evacuees.

Palestinians fleeing Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip further south toward Rafah, drive over a narrow stretch of the Salah Al-Din road in order to avoid a crater caused by Israeli bombing on December 10, 2023.

In early December, things got worse when the Israeli army moved south, cutting off Salah al-Din Road near Khan Younis and effectively isolating the central area from both the north and south.

The chaos of conflict

Hussein's large build, which belies his youthful age, poses a significant challenge to his parents' efforts to manage and control him, especially amid the chaos of conflict.

The war has severely disrupted health and medical services in their area, exacerbating the family's struggles.

Getting Hussein his medicines, treatments, and tranquilisers is proving increasingly difficult, which compounds the challenge.

Fatima's fear is palpable as she recalls her hesitation at crossing Salah al-Din Road, the only escape route amid tanks and military presence.

"At any given moment, I feared the army might open fire, harming Hussein... The thought of losing my son while I'm still alive is unbearable," she says, her voice faltering.

Communication with the outside world is sporadic and fraught with difficulties, as the bombing of transmission towers and the presence of heavy reconnaissance aircraft severely disrupt cellular networks.

'We crossed. I feared the army may open fire. The thought of losing my son while I am still alive is unbearable.'

Fatima, mother of autistic child

The plight of Hussein and his family is not unique in the Gaza Strip, where another 1,500 children have autism, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

Given that the World Health Organisation (WHO) says roughly 1% of children worldwide suffer from autism, this figure is highly likely to underestimate the problem.

In Gaza, there is a lack of specialised health, medical, and psychological services for those with autism. With it now a closed military zone, Hussein is among those caught in the relentless targeting of homes, streets, and infrastructure.

Trapped and isolated

The level of destruction and casualties has made it difficult for medical and aid supplies to reach places like Jabalia, meaning that help has not always been available.

Trapped indoors due to myriad dangers outside, families also face a critical food shortage. Canned goods, vegetables, and even water are scarce.

This acute shortage threatens residents' survival, yet the Israeli siege and bombardment continue.

The indiscriminate nature of the attacks, which fail to distinguish between civilians and fighters, adds another layer of hardship to their daily struggle.

In stark contrast to Fatima's family, the family of Rasha Saad al-Din — who also lives in Gaza City — decided to evacuate south early on.

A man pushes a child in a wheelchair as people enter the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip before crossing into Egypt on November 1, 2023.

The urgency was fuelled by the need to move Rasha, who depends on a wheelchair and the assistance of her brothers. Having lived with mobility issues since birth, Rasha's family had adapted their home to help her move around.

Gaza already lacked specialised health, medical, and psychological services for those with autism. Now, it is a closed military zone.

Anticipating that evacuating later might be more difficult or dangerous, they chose to go immediately, navigating a disabled daughter under the shadow of conflict.

Rasha, 38, has cerebral palsy (having suffered from a lack of oxygen at birth) and has limited mobility. She also has diabetes.

Her education at the Association of the Physically Handicapped was stalled because schools could not accommodate her needs. She joined a local association to learn Palestinian agricultural embroidery, which has become very important to her.

Her family were displaced on the eighth day of the war, prompted by Israeli threats just before the ground invasion of Gaza City.

Their home was damaged, forcing them out. They found temporary refuge in a school designated for displaced persons. "We crammed 16 people into a car meant for four," says Rasha.

"Salah al-Din Road was still open for cars then, which allowed us to reach a shelter in the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza."

In the chaos, Rasha lost her wheelchair and mobility aids.

Schoolyards and science labs

The first displacement centre they reached was not equipped to meet her needs, so they moved to a second. This was supposedly better suited for those with disabilities but also proved challenging.

Initially, the family took shelter in the school playground. Although a wheelchair was found, it was not what Rasha needed and led to added problems and discomfort.

"My brother spoke to the shelter's supervisor," she recalls. "After some negotiation, they allowed us to use the scientific laboratory, which was more accommodating for me and my family, considering my health condition."

Youths play volleyball in the yard of a school used to house sheltering Palestinians displaced by the conflict in Gaza.

The school had previously been repurposed as a shelter during times of war and displacement and welcomed several families with children facing various disabilities. The lab now accommodates 26 families comprising 192 people.

In this shared space, she says families used pieces of old fabric to create some semblance of privacy or individual units within the larger facility.

The school had been repurposed as a shelter before. The science lab was given over to families with disabilities. Currently, 192 people live there.

In the Gaza Strip, more than 55,000 live with disabilities, including motor, auditory, and visual impairments, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

Since the initiation of the Israeli war, more than half a million Gazans have been displaced from the north to both the central and southern regions.

In her interview with Al Majalla, Saad highlights a critical issue regarding toileting.

In the overcrowded conditions, using the toilet is increasingly difficult, as she needs specific tools and a clean environment. She also needs a wheelchair that suits her movement within the centre.

"My dream is to return to my home," she says. "It is to resume normal life without the shadow of war, crises, shelters, and displacement."

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