Inside Gaza's Factory Making Prosthetic Legs For Palestinian Protest Amputees | WGLT

Inside Gaza's Factory Making Prosthetic Legs For Palestinian Protest Amputees

Oct 31, 2018
Originally published on November 3, 2018 9:39 am

A heap of plastic leg sockets rests on a shelf. Palestinian technicians in white lab coats scurry past.

They slip into side rooms to sand down leg molds, mix chemicals, cut and polish plastics with big machines, and screw together rods. Tables and floors are speckled with white plaster. Saws and hammers hang from the walls.

"This is the workshop," says Mohammed Dwema, director of the Artificial Limbs and Polio Center in Gaza City.

The clinic is creating prosthetic legs from scratch for the first round of young Palestinians who lost a leg to an Israeli soldier's bullet during recent protests at the Gaza-Israel border.

The Gaza protests have been going on for months. Protesters are demanding Israel lift its blockade on the territory that is home to about 2 million Palestinians. It is a strip about twice the size of Washington, D.C., wedged by Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. Israel and Egypt have kept their borders with Gaza largely sealed and have restricted the territory's imports and exports since the Islamist group Hamas took control of Gaza over a decade ago.

Palestinians have described the protesters as unarmed and say many have stayed far back from the Israeli border fence and posed no threat to soldiers. But Israel says the border protests have been violent, with some demonstrators throwing rocks and explosive devices toward the fence, flying incendiary balloons and kites that have set fire to Israeli farmland, damaging the border fence and slipping through to the Israeli side. One Israeli soldier has been killed by Palestinian gunfire at the border, Israel says. Soldiers stationed at the border have opened fire at protesters, and Gaza officials say more than 200 people have been killed and thousands wounded. The Israeli military has not reported a tally on Palestinian casualties.

So far, about 75 people shot in the leg have needed an amputation, Dwema says. After months of bandaging, muscle exercises and physical therapy, amputees are ready for a prosthesis.

The prosthetics specialists at the clinic work in a hurry; the lights and machines shut off at noon.

"We have a problem with electricity here," says Dwema, 33. "There is no fuel every day for the generator. We are just opening the generator from 9 to 12."

Gaza's power grid is unreliable, providing only a few hours of electricity a day, so the machines run on a generator, but only for three hours a day. Israel, Egypt and Palestinian leaders outside Gaza have all placed restrictions on the fuel that reaches Gaza, amid efforts to pressure Hamas to give up its control of the territory.

The clinic faces other challenges, like restrictions Israel imposes on the import of raw materials to make the prostheses. Israeli officials say they fear militants could get a hold of what they call "dual use" materials and use them for weaponry. Dwema says his clinic needs to create a paper trail for Israel.

"We make documentation, how many grams we received, take photo with a number, dates. Like a monitoring system," Dwema says.

The workshop depends on the International Committee of the Red Cross to provide the raw materials and coordinate with Israel to get restricted supplies such as silicone to the clinic.

"The problem is that Gaza is totally dependent on aid," says Jacques de Maio, who is concluding his tenure as the head of the Red Cross mission in Israel and the Palestinian territories. "The set of restrictions of which silicone is part of is actually a straightjacket that is strangling the ability of Gaza to sustain itself."

One floor above the workshop, Palestinian technicians help young men try out a prosthetic leg for the first time. "Short step, short step," says a visiting American prosthetics expert, as she assists a patient teetering on his prosthesis to walk between balance beams.

In the physiotherapy room, Omar Abu Hashem, 20, is sitting with his left stump folded over his right leg, waiting for his turn. He says Israeli soldiers shot him in the leg in May as he tried to help evacuate a wounded man at the Israeli border.

It's not easy for Gazans to travel outside Gaza, but Abu Hashem says his doctor promised he'd be sent to Turkey where better-equipped surgeons might have been able to save his leg. He says he arranged a passport but then his doctor said he didn't appear on the approved travel list. He believes Hamas gave one of its own wounded men his slot, though he offered no evidence to support his claim.

"I hold them responsible for everything," Abu Hashem says.

He leaves before he could try on his prosthetic leg. He got a call that Hamas was offering cash vouchers to those wounded at the border, and rushed to the bank.

The young amputee trying his prosthesis at the balance beams says soldiers shot him in the leg after he helped set fire to an Israeli military post.

Dwema says he doesn't ask patients if they were involved in violence or are affiliated with a militant group. He says he is committed to treating everyone.

But he cannot afford the high-tech artificial legs that some young amputees have requested.

"Patients ask, 'I am a swimmer, I need to swim. I am runner, I am bicycle rider.' I cannot provide with him for a prosthesis that costs $20,000. If I had $20,000, I would buy fuel for my generator," Dwema says.

The clinic can provide only the most basic prosthetic legs with limited range of motion. Palestinians who lose a leg after being wounded in the protests can expect to walk again, but with a limp.

The center aims to help amputees move on, but some still mourn their loss.

Sohaib Qudaih, 31, and Naziha Qudaih, 38, a brother and sister who each lost a leg to Israeli gunfire, say they buried their amputated limbs in a Gaza cemetery.

Sohaib says he regrets going to protest. Sometimes, he says, he visits the grave where his leg is buried, to recite passages from the Quran.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The cost for Palestinians in protests and clashes along the Gaza-Israel border has been high. Israeli soldiers have accused them of violence and opened fire. Gaza officials say more than 200 people have died. Thousands more have been wounded. NPR's Daniel Estrin visited a workshop in Gaza City that's trying to help Palestinians who have lost their legs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINES WHIRRING)

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Through the waiting room and behind a set of doors is a heap of plastic leg sockets on a shelf. Palestinian technicians in white lab coats scurry past into side rooms where they sand down leg molds, mix chemicals, cut and polish plastics with large machines and screw together rods. Tables and floors are speckled with white plaster. Saws and hammers hang from the walls.

MOHAMMED DWEMA: This is the workshop.

ESTRIN: Mohammed Dwema directs Gaza's Artificial Limbs and Polio Center. He says about 75 people in Gaza have had a leg amputated since protests began this spring. After months of bandaging, muscle exercises and physical therapy, the first amputees are ready for a prosthesis created right here from scratch.

DWEMA: They're melting this plastic to have the final shape of the leg.

ESTRIN: Now, it seems pretty busy here.

DWEMA: Sure - because now there's like rush hour because we have a problem with electricity here. There is no fuel every day for the generator. We are just opening the generator from 9 to 12.

ESTRIN: The machines run only three hours a day on a generator. Israel, Egypt and Palestinian leaders outside Gaza have all restricted the amount of fuel that reaches here. It's all part of a tactic to pressure the militant Islamist group Hamas to give up its control of Gaza. The electricity problem is just one of the many challenges of running this clinic. Another are the restrictions Israel imposes on the import of raw materials to make the prostheses. Israel fears militants could use them for weaponry. Dwema says he needs to create a paper trail for Israel.

DWEMA: When we hear they're coming, we make documentation - how many grams we receive, take photo with a number - dates - like a monitoring system.

ESTRIN: The workshop depends on the International Committee of the Red Cross to provide the raw materials.

JACQUES DE MAIO: The problem is that Gaza is totally dependent on aid.

ESTRIN: Jacques de Maio heads the Red Cross mission here. It coordinates with Israel to get restricted supplies, like silicone, into Gaza for the prosthetics center.

DE MAIO: The set of restrictions, of which silicone is only part of, is actually a straitjacket that is drown - that is actually strangling the ability of Gaza, well, to sustain itself.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Short step, short step.

ESTRIN: One floor above the workshop is where Palestinian technicians and a visiting American expert help young men try out a prosthetic leg for the first time. Twenty-year-old Omar Abu Hashem sits and waits for his turn. His left stump is folded over his right leg.

OMAR ABU HASHEM: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: He says Israeli soldiers shot him in the leg as he tried to help evacuate a wounded man at the Israeli border this spring. Protests on the border have been going on for months now, calling on Israel to lift the blockade it's imposed on Gaza ever since Hamas took over a decade ago.

ABU HASHEM: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: Abu Hasham claims he could have gone to Turkey where surgeons might have been able to save his leg. It's not easy for Gazans to travel. He believes Hamas gave one of its wounded men the slot that he was promised.

ABU HASHEM: (Through interpreter) I hold them responsible for everything.

ESTRIN: Another young man here says soldiers shot him in the leg after he helped set fire to an Israeli military post. Mohammed Dwema, the director here, says he doesn't ask patients if they were involved in violence. He's committed to treating everyone. But he says he can't afford the high-tech artificial legs that some of the young men are asking for.

DWEMA: The patients ask of us - I am a swimmer. I need to swim. I am runner. I am bicycle rider. I cannot provide with them for a prothesis that cost $20,000. If I had $20,000, I would buy fuel for my generator.

ESTRIN: He says his clinic can only provide the most basic prosthetic legs with limited range of motion. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Gaza City.

(SOUNDBITE OF CYMANDE'S "BROTHERS ON THE SLIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.