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‘In Gaza, we are soulless bodies, living in constant fear, aware that we may die at any second’

30-year-old Abeer Harkali was left disabled by Israeli occupation forces and her life has been governed by their attacks on Gaza ever since.

May 14, 2024 at 9:00 am

30-year-old Palestinian Abeer Harkali is among the nearly 2 million Palestinians who have been forced to flee their homes in Gaza in order to stay alive [Abeer Harkali]

The worst choice you have to make in life is the decision to save your loved ones by asking them to leave you behind to face death alone. That was the choice that Abeer Harkali made in order to save her youngest brother, Nidhal, from being shot by the Israeli occupied forces, as he was trying to carry her to a shelter in Gaza.

Thirty-year-old Abeer and her family were among the Palestinians forced to flee from their homes in Gaza City’s Shuja’iyya neighbourhood in early October last year. A wheelchair user, Abeer was only able to flee because her brother carried her to an UNRWA school where they took refuge.

Abeer was born with hemiplegia, a condition caused by brain damage or spinal cord injury that leads to paralysis on one side of the body. From the moment her mother discovered she was pregnant, the Israeli occupation played a leading role in shaping Abeer’s life for it was during this time that gas bombs were fired into the family home, suffocating Abeer’s mother and leaving her foetus with insufficient oxygen and causing her disability.

I first got to know Abeer Harkali through her activism within the disability field a few years ago and when the Israeli aggression began, I immediately contacted her to see how she was doing. It took two weeks for the message to be delivered then an agonising wait to get a response, as relieved as I was to know she was alive, it was heartbreaking reading her plea:

Please do something for us, please I beg you to stop this bombardment, we are dying, for the love of God help us.

Prior to Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza and despite the knowledge that her life could have been different, Abeer has always chosen to keep active, she had many hobbies and took part in campaigns for people with disability. She was a member of the Palestinian wheelchair basketball team, as well as the karate team and table tennis. Abeer was also one of the founding members of the first wheelchair users Dabke band, while also volunteering at Ana Insan (I am a human), an organisation that specialises in social and human rights issues.

“Before the war began, I lived my life to the fullest like any other person, spending my time between work, sports, dancing, volunteering and going out with my friends to various places, thanks to the electric wheelchair I was able to do everything and go everywhere without any difficulties or obstacles,” she explains.

All this is now a distant dream; since October things have changed dramatically. “I am now a prisoner of this war, and a prisoner of my own pain and emotional scars.”

On the morning of Saturday 7 October, Abeer woke up to the frightening sound of Israeli warplanes and bombs. Because they live on the eastern border of Gaza which bears the worst of any aggression and is regarded as a danger zone in the time of war, her family decided to immediately flee leaving her electric wheelchair behind and sought refuge in UNRWA’s Al-Falah school. “We stayed at the school for over a month and a half, we were full of fear and anxiety, knowing we are surrounded by destruction and death, we sought shelter at the school yet we knew there was no such thing as a refuge or a ‘safe’ area in Gaza,” Abeer explains.

On 16 November, occupation forces launched a rocket into the Al-Falah school’s yard and both Abeer’s father and brother were injured. “I left the classroom that had become my ‘home’ to find my father lying on the ground, the lower half of his body completely cut but he was still alive, still breathing while my injured brother was holding him tight in his arms and screaming ‘ambulance, ambulance’, knowing that the occupation forces will never allow an ambulance in to save anyone.”

During that period Israeli occupation forces had cut off all means of communications. Abeer’s brothers carried their father to an adjacent school. “As we were heading to the other school, we had to walk over the bodies of children who were killed by the rocket which fell on them and every child became many pieces.”

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Those who survived the blast, died of their wounds, explains Abeer, “as there was nothing that we could do for them, except listen to their dying groans.”

The family spent the night keeping a vigil beside their injured father.

My disability has never ever made me feel incompetent or hopeless but watching my father suffer and slowly die right in front of my eyes and there was nothing that I could do to save him, made me feel useless, especially as he was pleading with me to call for an ambulance, it was a painful night, the worst night of my life.

As morning broke, Abeer’s family could not hear groans from the injured as many had succumbed to their wounds. Her father, however, was still alive.

They knew they had to once again flee, but the school’s entrance was surrounded by Israeli snipers who had taken aim at unarmed young boys who had tried to leave the compound earlier in the day. Instead, the Palestinians in the shelter had to make a hole in the wall at the back of the school to escape.

“I didn’t have my wheelchair and the only way for me to leave was for my youngest brother, 23-year-old Nidhal, to carry me, and he did, running with me amongst so many other people who were also running away to the so-called ‘safe zone’.”

But Nidhal was suffering from malnutrition due to lack of food and as a result of the trauma of the past 24 hours he was not able to carry Abeer for too long and she suddenly fell out of his hands and onto the ground. Others who were fleeing didn’t see Abeer and she was trampled on, leading to her rib cage to break.

“I was not able to crawl or escape like all the other people, and my brother couldn’t drag me out from under people’s feet. I urged him to go and save himself, I will accept whatever awaits me,” she says, but Nidhal refused. He gathered what little strength he had left and tried to lift Abeer again, escaping as fast as his weak body would allow him, under the bombs that were falling like heavy rain around them.

“It was a very long journey, I was in tremendous amount of pain because of my broken ribs but I didn’t want to show Nidhal as he was already crying out of fear and despair at what has happened to us and at the thought of not knowing if we will reunite with the rest of our family.”

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They couldn’t get to southern Gaza as the sniper fire had intensified but they did find Abeer’s mother and her injured brother and they all headed back to Shujai’yya to search for their father and Abeer’s three other brothers. They found the brothers only to be told that their father bled to death with no one able to help him. He had been buried under the rubble of a random house.

“We were in shock and bewilderment, a nightmare that we just wanted to wake up from, yet we couldn’t even mourn my father, we were surrounded by death and fear.” Again, the family decided to go to southern Gaza, “we knew we were seconds away from death.” They finally arrived at Deir Al-Balah, where they remain to this day. They received photos of their house, which has been completely demolished alongside Abeer’s electric wheelchair: her main lifeline.

“I am living in a school, on the fourth floor, I have no clothes or bed, we lack everything, even the most basic forms of human rights.

We are soulless bodies, living in constant fear under the never ending bombing and what feels like eternal suffering, there is no end in sight and we are all aware that we may die at any second.

Abeer is not an exception, she is just one of millions of Palestinians whose lives have been dictated by the occupation forces even before they were born.