The weightlifting club in the heart of the northern Gaza city of Jabalia is one of the most well-known and busiest sports centres in the besieged coastal enclave. Amazingly, it is run by a former ambulance driver who suffered severe injuries when his ambulance was hit by Israeli artillery as he drove to evacuate a family during the major Israeli military offensive in 2008/9. Nidal Al-Da'our, now 37, suffered shrapnel injuries over his whole body. More seriously, his left hand was blown off.
"I received a note from the emergency communication officer that there was a family in Abed Rabbu neighbourhood, east of Jabalia, being bombed by the Israeli occupation forces," he recalled. "I wore my vest and prepared all the kit needed for first aid, got in the ambulance and rushed towards the address I was given by my colleague."
Being an ambulance driver and paramedic is stressful at the best of times. When shells are landing all around — and your ambulance is being targeted by those firing them — it's even worse. According to his friends and colleagues, though, Al-Da'our was both skilled and courageous; the "best fit" for such a job in extremely difficult circumstances.
All he can remember of the explosion is that he was on his way to help the family in question when he saw a large flash of light and the ambulance jumped what he said felt like ten metres in the air. "Then I fell unconscious."
He woke up the next day in Gaza City's Al Shifa Hospital. "My whole body was covered in bandages and hurting, but I could not feel my left hand. It was gone." He made his mind up immediately that he wasn't going to let this loss affect his life. "I would not surrender to this new reality," he told me.
Unable to drive any more, he lost his job. Unemployment was not an issue for him, because his friends and relatives rallied around to help.
"The main problem wasn't the lack of a job, but the fact that I started to suffer from muscular atrophy on the left side of my body. Doctors advised physiotherapy, but that was difficult for me with only one hand." He started, though, and things got easier.
The improvements this brought to his body and health made him think of ways to overcome the fact that his left hand was gone forever. His physiotherapy developed into weight training, and he had to invent ways to handle the equipment in the gym.
"I started bodybuilding training without equipment," he said. "When I found that it was helping, I decided to go one step further, using weightlifting equipment. It worked. Gradually, the muscular atrophy stopped, my body recovered and I started to resume a normal life."
The modifications that he made to the equipment meant that he could train as if he had two hands. He has had no help from anyone to do this. "Necessity is the mother of invention. And I work it all out on my own." Eight years of intensive weight training followed.
Al-Da'our became a role model in Gaza, not only for those with similar injuries and disabilities. "I decided to open a weightlifting club for two reasons. I need somewhere to train myself on an ongoing basis, and I am able to help and train others."
He was supported by friends and relatives, mainly his wife, who encouraged him to open the club. "It was a brilliant idea. I got the money and bought equipment, rented a hall and started the training sessions."
What next for this former ambulance driver? He would like to represent Palestine at the Paralympic Games and other international tournaments. "I hope to demonstrate to the whole world that Israel's aggression against the Palestinians does not always end our lives; that it can also boost our resilience and persistence under a brutal occupation."
Nevertheless, there is one thing that he misses, despite being a weightlifting champion. "I can't lift my children up and play with them as others can. That's when I really miss having two hands."
Tears are in my eyes when I take my leave of him. I know what it is like to be wounded by the Israelis — I was shot by a sniper in 2018 — but it was not a life-changing injury, and I have been able to carry on as before. Nidal Al-Da'our is truly inspirational. I salute him.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.