One day in April last year, Gaza’s former kung-fu champion, a powerfully-built 26-year-old called Arab Dola, was standing on the construction site where he worked when a large metal container toppled off the roof of the building above him.

He did not see it coming.

In a instant, Arab Dola’s future crumbled to dust, vertebrae C4, C5, C6 and C7, crushed and splintered. His spinal cord, severed. His life, irreparably altered.

Today, he lies paralysed and rasping for breath in the tiny front room of a tumble-down slum dwelling in Gaza’s crowded and fetid Beach Refugee Camp, a quadraplegic, capable of making only the slightest of movements with his now wasted left arm. He needs total care, round-the-clock.

Next to him, baby Asil, his two-month old daughter, coos in her cot. Arab learned that his young wife, Dalia, was pregnant as he lay in a neck brace with tubes down his throat. Until then, he’d been conscious throughout — and hadn’t slept for 10 days from the pain. But when he heard the glad tidings, he went into cardiac arrest.

“If I’d ever thought this might happen, I would never have married,” he tells me, his eyes brimming with tears. “I am lost. And my future is lost.” He nods to a photograph of himself, caught mid-lunge in his Bruce Lee days, and exhales a long, painful sigh.

10 Arab Dola profile w Gazas paralysis: the story of Arab Dola

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Rats and asbestos

Gaza is full of family tragedies and after seven years of Israeli siege and a comatose economy, nearly everyone is struggling. But paralysis is what best describes the Dola family’s condition, having lost their sole bread-winner.

Arab’s father, Mohammed, has not worked for years, since Israel barred labourers crossing over from Gaza. He and his wife, Yousra, have three other children; and then there’s Dalia and the baby. There was no food in their fridge, which doesn’t work anyway, as there’s no electricity.

“He was my right hand,” says Mohammed, out of the blue, as we sit discussing the grim situation in Gaza. The family has been unable to find or afford a proper wheelchair for Arab, let alone the medical care he requires for his complex condition.

Yousra gives me a tour of their dark and crumbling home. The place is spotless but the bedroom and kitchen and bathroom are infested with rats and the plastic sheet roof, weighed down by rocks, is badly cracked. And under the plastic, she says, pointing to the ceiling, asbestos boards, broken and exposed.

In the cabin kitchen, Yousra runs the tap and fills a glass full of water. “Taste it,” she says.

I take a sip. It’s as salty as sea-water — which is pretty much what it is, as the Mediterranean has infiltrated into Gaza’s groundwater making what’s left of the near-empty coastal aquifer undrinkable. Yet for families like the Dolas, who can rarely afford to buy what Yousra calls “sweet water,” that’s what they’ve got.

‘Desperate’

Gaza is running on empty. Condemned by the United Nations as “rapidly becoming uninhabitable,” this suffocating, over-crowded prison of a place, blockaded by land, sea and air, is a human pressure-cooker. Its 1.7 million inhabitants, many impoverished and undernourished, live in a sustained state of crisis and daily distress.

Following the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood government in neighbouring Egypt, the Egyptian military turned on the Brotherhood’s brethren in Gaza – Hamas, the Islamist group which has ruled here since 2007.

10 Hamas Islamic Jihad  demo1 w Gazas paralysis: the story of Arab Dola(Above: Hamas and Islamic Jihad stage a demo in Gaza City against John Kerry´s peace plan.)

They accused Hamas, which is proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the United States and Europe, of supplying Salafist militants in Egypt with weapons. They said they were being smuggled through the 1,200 tunnels under the walled frontier between Gaza and the Arab Republic. The Egyptians blew them all up.

The trouble is, the tunnels also served as a lifeline for trade and commerce and since their destruction, unemployment in Gaza has jumped from 23 per cent last year to 43 per cent now. Job prospects are zero.

For those who have jobs, wages are down. Prices, meanwhile, have shot up, as all produce now comes into Gaza from Israel. Even before the tunnels were destroyed, people were spending half the household income on food alone. Yousra Dola, when she showed me round her house, told me: “Today is the 11th day since we’ve cooked any food.” That night all the family had to eat was a bag of tomatoes.

10 Gaza market w Gazas paralysis: the story of Arab Dola(Above: the market in Gaza City)

The UN now says more than one third of Gazans live below the UN poverty line, with four out of five in need of humanitarian aid. The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) — which exists to assist Palestinian refugees — is now feeding a record 50 per cent of the Gaza population. “Everything is unsustainable,” says UNRWA spokesman, Chris Gunness. “It’s desperate.”

UNRWA rations have had to be cut in recent months, as the agency has failed to attract the international funding it needs. Mr Gunness suspects it’s because there are too many other crises elsewhere in this region. The humanitarian catastrophe in Syria has diverted attention from Gaza, which languishes in misery, virtually forgotten.

In his dank, dark front room in Beach Camp, Arab Dola, Gaza’s paralysed former kung-fu king lies there, a metaphor for his crippled ‘nation.’ After his accident, the family of his shy, soft-spoken 22-year-old wife Dalia came and took her back to the family home, telling her it was no life for her to be married to him any more.

But one night, shortly afterwards, at 3am, Dalia escaped from her parent’s house and came back to Arab.

“I said to her: ‘It’s OK, I will divorce you,’” Arab tells me, fully comprehending her predicament. “She refused and told me there was no way she would leave me, especially now. Dalia loves me.”

Baby Asil starts to cry and Dalia comes into the room. We change the subject. As we prepare to leave, a strange question comes into my mind and I put it to Arab: “When you sleep,” I ask, “are you, in your dreams, as you are now or are you still Bruce Lee?”

Arab smiles – and he’s got a infectious grin. “In my dreams I am working and walking and running and playing. And I believe that because of these dreams, I will one day be able to work and walk and run and play again.”

We were utterly speechless.

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