A Gaza footballer’s journey from pitch to hospital amid Israel’s war

Football, which was synonymous with life in Gaza, has been forced to take a back seat as players struggle to stay alive.

Khalid Abu-Habel with the Gaza third-tier championship trophy that he won with his club Al-Ataa in January 2023 [Courtesy Khalid Abu-Habel]
Khalid Abu-Habel with the Gaza third-tier championship trophy that he won with his club Al-Ataa in January 2023 [Courtesy of Khalid Abu-Habel]

Deir el-Balah, Gaza – A day in the life of Khalid Mohammed Abu-Habel would start with him getting ready for classes at a hospital in Gaza, discussing medicine and healthcare with his colleagues, getting back home for lunch with his parents, attending football training and studying medicine at night.

Belonging to a working-class family, he lived in a small house with four siblings and his parents. While money was always an issue for the family, especially given the economic situation in Gaza due to the Israeli blockade, his family supported his determination and passion – and his dream of becoming a doctor and footballer.

“For me, medicine is more important than football. I love both but medicine is undoubtedly more honourable and significant,” Abu-Habel told Al Jazeera.

“I was keen to study hard. I’d spend five to seven hours studying medicine. We would have football training for two to three days, with each session lasting up to three hours. I only slept for around six hours a day.

“But those were lovely days.”

The “lovely days” were before October 7. Fast forward three months, lives have been turned upside down following Israel’s atrocities across the besieged enclave, with more than 23,000 people killed in Gaza.

At the start of the war, his family fled from the Maghazi to the Nuseirat refugee camp but returned last month. But when Israeli tanks surrounded Maghazi last week, he fled to Deir el-Balah.

Like most people in the area, Abu-Habel may have to flee again. This time, further south towards Rafah.

Khalid Abu-Habel at Al Shifaa Hospital in Gaza [Courtesy of Khalid Abu-Habel]
Khalid Abu-Habel at al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza [Courtesy of Khalid Abu-Habel]

When football meant life

Football, in Gaza, meant life for all those living under the crippling siege enforced by Israel more than 15 years ago.

Dozens of football clubs were part of Gaza’s four football leagues. Matches usually took place over the weekends to allow as many people as possible to enjoy the most popular sport in Palestine.

At the matches, loud crowds roared and families gathered in the stands. Rivalries amongst the clubs within the 365sq km (141sq miles) strip of land divided fans and gave an added spark to the matches.

The crowd comprised mostly of children, the same children who are mercilessly being targeted in Israeli attacks. The war has deprived them of their basic rights and pastimes, including playing football on the streets.

With two sandals as goalposts, no specific game time and a low-quality ball – the children of Gaza would find joy in football.

More than 9,600 of those killed in Gaza since October 7 have been children, with hundreds feared buried under the rubble of buildings destroyed in Israeli attacks.


‘Three months since I kicked a ball’

For the 22-year-old Abu-Habel, like hundreds of other aspiring footballers in Gaza left with nowhere to go, the sport has been forced to take a back seat.

“When my family was not convinced that I could juggle medicine and football, I told them I could not leave football. They then encouraged me to continue but warned me from being distracted or wasting my time.”

Just 12 months ago, Abu-Habel and his club Al-Ataa from Khan Younis won the third-tier championship to earn promotion. In 2022, he joined this club on loan from his boyhood club Khadamat Al-Maghazi, where he began his football career as a nine-year-old.

A skilful and key player for every team he has played for, Abu-Habel has earned recognition, accolades and awards wherever he’s gone.

“I was fully prepared to put on stellar displays on the pitch this season, but everything has changed due to the Israeli aggression. It has now been three months since I kicked a ball.”

Instead, those last three months have been spent volunteering at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir el-Balah as an emergency doctor, working for more than 72 hours a week, sometimes even longer.

“My love for my people, my passion for medicine, and the determination I have to learn and grow as a doctor pushed me to work at the hospital. My people need me now the most. I must respond and be there for them.”

He started studying medicine in 2019 at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. Now, the university is a pile of rubble.

“I should’ve been at the hospital to study but the story changed in the blink of an eye. Now, here I am, looking at people with limbs blown up lying and crying on the ground. What an atrocity this is.

“Even before the war, the situation here was not great.”

Abu-Habel says he is buried under the debt of loans he has taken over the years to pay for his university fees.

“I hope I can pay them all soon… if I survive,” Abu-Habel said, choking at the thought of what lies ahead for him amidst the war.

Khalid Abu-Habel (second left) pictured with the youth team of Al-Maghazi football club in 2019 [Courtesy of Khalid Abu-Habel]
Khalid Abu-Habel (second left) pictured with the youth team of Al-Maghazi football club in 2019 [Courtesy of Khalid Abu-Habel]

‘I am here to believe’

After spending days at a stretch at the hospital, he tries to help families in his neighbourhood – or whatever remains of it – with his medical expertise and in any other way he can.

“It is so exhausting. I really don’t get time to rest. The number of cases we receive every day is unbelievable but we must do our best to save their lives. Cases vary from war injuries to health problems due to the lack of food and water.

“What I have been seeing in the hospital over the last three months is truly heartbreaking and nerve-wracking. Most cases are children bleeding from every part of their bodies. The situation deteriorates daily.”

Even with no end in sight to the relentless Israeli air, sea and land attacks, Khalid hopes for a brighter future and to chase his [football] dreams.

“I promised myself to work hard day in, day out. There are many challenges, particularly the occupation, but I am here to believe and continue my obstacle-laden journey of signing my first professional contract for a football club in Europe.

“I love Manchester City and Barcelona, two clubs that Pep Guardiola inspired me to support. I hope I can play for either of them one day.

“Before that, I hope this war will end soon because our dreams are being destroyed.”

Source: Al Jazeera