GAZA: Palestinian players with disabilities, part of a football team organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), take part in match in Gaza City on December 2, 2021. - AFP

GAZA: Players in the Gaza Strip used crutches and prosthetic legs Thursday to stretch, run and dribble as part of the first-ever Palestinian national team that hopes to qualify for the Amputee Football World Cup. The team trained at the Palestine Stadium in Gaza City under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The 20 players on the team were selected from among five Gaza clubs for players who lost limbs. Player Hassan Abu Kareem, 38, said his leg was amputated after he was injured in a Zionist raid on Al-Maghazi refugee camp in 2006.

"From the moment of injury, my life has not changed," he told AFP. "I continued with my ambition and great goal in life, and my goal is to represent Palestine and to make an achievement for myself in the field of sports." Red Cross spokeswoman Suhair Zakkout said the players were setting a new Palestinian standard after the first local team began in 2019 with several players. "Today, these players make history by forming the first national football team for amputees," she said.

Zakkout said the players were training for qualifying matches to be held in March 2022 in Iran. If the team succeeds, they will go on to the Amputee Football World Cup, slated to be held in Turkey in late 2022. Fuad Abu Ghaliun, chairman of the Palestine Amputee Football Association, said his group applied to join the World Amputee Football Federation in 2019. Their candidacy was accepted earlier this year.

Friday is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Coach Simon Baker, himself an amputee, said he was working with players "in a way where people see the football being played, and not the person with a disability." "We want people to respect the players and see them for Ahmed or whoever it is and not see them as somebody broken. We want to make heroes of these players," said Baker, who founded the Irish Amputee Football Association.

The Palestinian team is in the isolated Gaza Strip, whose two million residents have been locked under a Zionist blockade since the Islamist movement Hamas took control in 2007. Ahmed Abu Nar, 34, used crutches and said he was injured in 2018 by Zionist forces who suppressed Gaza protests known as the "Great March of Return". "Before the injury I was one person, and after the injury I became someone else," he told AFP. "A new life began, new goals began and new ambitions and new challenges, and now I am achieving my goals." - AFP