Gazan para-cyclists deliver aid on bikes

When Palestine’s top professional cyclist Alaa al-Dali was shot in the leg by an Israeli sniper in 2019, it could have ended his athletic career forever. 

Al-Dali was one of at least 35,600 mostly peaceful protesters injured by targeted attacks during months-long rallies along the Gaza-Israel border to protest against Israel’s illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip and demand the right to return to their ancestral homes. Palestinians called it ‘The Great March of Return’.

A total of 214 Palestinians were killed in these rallies, in which Israeli soldiers intentionally targeted people’s legs. The Ministry of Health in Gaza said at least half of all injuries were to lower limbs, leading to amputations. Al-Dali was one of them.

After enduring what he described as ‘the amputation of his dream’, al-Dali didn’t give up. Instead, he assembled a team of 19 other athletes in Gaza, all of whom had sustained similar life-altering injuries from Israeli attacks, and co-founded a para-cycling team called the Gaza Sunbirds. 

The team hoped to represent Palestine at this year’s Paralympic Games in Paris. But since Israel launched its genocidal campaign on the Gaza Strip following the 7 October Hamas attacks, the Gaza Sunbirds have pivoted to a full-blown aid operation. 

‘An endless pit of needs’

Every day in Gaza is a fight for survival. 

‘People are stuck in this cycle of grief,’ said Karim Ali, the London-based co-founder and international coordinator of the Gaza Sunbirds. 

Ali manages day-to-day operations for the team – including arranging bank transfers to purchase food and water, which can take days or even weeks to arrive in the besieged strip. Since 7 October, Ali has helped to co-ordinate the delivery of over $70,000 worth of food and supplies in southern and central Gaza, much of which has been delivered by the team on their bikes.  

‘We were able to buy some food recently and they [the team] were really happy about it. We shared a video on social media of them eating bread,’ Ali told New Internationalist.  

Now 24, Ali first met al-Dali when he was a 19-year-old student working as a translator for an Al Jazeera documentary about the cyclist’s life.

‘Translating is a very intimate experience, you have to really understand the meanings and the emotions behind what somebody is saying,’ said Ali. ‘I was listening to his story over and over again and everything in my life suddenly felt tied to his. I really saw the strength and the potential in his narrative.’

Initially, their idea was simple: organize a pilot group of 10 athletes on bikes and run 15 training sessions on a 35-kilometre strip of road in Gaza. Their main aims were to give people with disabilities opportunities to ride bikes and regain their mobility, partake in international competitions and tell a narrative. Ali and al-Dali had a budget of $5,000 – about the cost of a single racing bike and some protective equipment in London.

‘Working in Gaza is the most difficult thing that you can possibly imagine,’ says Ali. ‘It took us a year to get the money into Gaza. We started the training program and these guys are coming in flip flops and jeans because they literally don't have any shoes. The longer you [work here], the more you realize that Gaza is just an endless pit of needs.’

Ali says the team never set out to become involved in politics. But now their dream to reach the Olympics and compete internationally has become a matter of life and death.

‘The only way for us to reach our sporting objectives in the midst of the genocide is to make sure that we don't die,’ he said.

‘The only way for us to reach our sporting objectives in the midst of the genocide is to make sure that we don't die.'

Currently, the team is all accounted for, but Ali says every day is a struggle. Navigating communication blackouts, looming famine, the near total destruction of critical infrastructure and constant bombardment from Israeli forces has been devastating for the entire population of more than two million people.

But even before the war, life was particularly hard for people with disabilities.

‘The most difficult thing is mental health. There is not a good view of people with disabilities around the world. That's the reality of it. They're not seen as full people. So there’s a crisis of confidence and a crisis of emotional management,’ said Ali.

'A lot of [our work] has been about how to show them as fathers, as community members, as husbands, brothers, sons … to really show the full broad spectrum of their lives.’

Of the more than 32,000 people killed so far in Gaza, 29 per cent are women and 44 per cent are children. Ali says that widespread vilification of Palestinian men means it’s important to humanize their stories as well.

‘The entire media rhetoric is that it's bad when women and children die, but no-one blinks an eye when a Palestinian man is killed. And so to us – a lot of [our work] has been about how to show them as fathers, as community members, as husbands, brothers, sons … to really show the full broad spectrum of their lives.’

Athletes for Palestine

Since their founding, the Gaza Sunbirds’ narrative has been rooted in the concept of sports and equal opportunity. After 7 October, Ali and a network of more than 50 international volunteers began reaching out to athletes from around the world to join their ‘Athletes for Palestine’ campaign and publicly demand an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

So far, 115 athletes have joined the campaign, including Ryan Lay, an American professional skateboarder, Mark Rohan, an Irish double gold paralympic medalist, George Qadado, a Palestinian-American cyclist and Fahed Amnar of Jordan’s national taekwondo team.

Skyler Espinoza, a para-cyclist with Team USA, posted on Instagram: ‘I believe that sport has the capacity to bring us all together, and that as athletes it is our responsibility to support one another in issues of human rights, on and off the field of play. I am joining because I want to be brave and do what is right,’

Ali says this support has played an important role in building confidence and giving the team a sense of legitimacy in sports. ‘The guys see themselves as athletes,’ he said.

There’s a third option, which is peace’

On Saturday 30 March, the Gaza Sunbirds, in partnership with Big Ride for Palestine, Native Women Ride and Amos Trust, will hold the latest global solidarity cycle event as part of the ‘Great Ride of Return’. The day marks five years since al-Dali lost his leg, and it is also ‘Land Day’ – a commemorative date for Palestinians in their resistance to Israeli colonization.

Whilst the UN Security Council finally adopted a resolution for a ceasefire in Gaza on 25 March, the Gaza Sunbirds’ demands go far beyond a temporary pause in fighting.

‘There is no viable future under the occupation, the cycle of violence is going to continue,’ said Ali. ‘The world is very busy painting a dichotomy of either you are against October 7 in the sense that you support the release of the hostages, or you support what happened on October 7. The reality is that there's a third option, which is peace.’

From the horrors of daily life in Gaza, al-Dali still maintains a sense of hope for the future of his team and of his people.

‘This war on Gaza will end eventually. We will get our lives back. We will get back to cycling. Despite bombardment and siege we are still here. We will keep going.’

The next Great Ride will take place on Saturday 30 March in various cities around the world. To find a ride near you, visit the Gaza Sunbirds website.