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Gaza Paralympians determined to succeed in London

May 22, 2012 1:42 P.M. (Updated: May 27, 2012 9:49 P.M.)
JERUSALEM (Ma'an) -- Palestinian Paralympic athletes preparing for the international games in London this summer are determined to overcome the extra obstacles they face to sporting glory.

Four athletes from the all-Gaza team visited Jerusalem on Monday, some for the first time in decades, to mark 100 days until the Paralympic games.

"It's a dream come true," says Muhammad Fanouna, a 32-year-old partially-blind long-jumper and runner, of visiting the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Compound) housing the Al-Aqsa Mosque. He hopes to see his sister, who lives in the West Bank, for the first time in 12 years.

With permits secured from Israel by the British Consulate in Jerusalem, the competitors and their trainers met the West Bank staff of the Paralympics committee on home ground for first time in over a decade.

Committee President Akram Okkeh described the reunion with his colleagues as "very special." Seven athletes -- not all got Jerusalem permits -- are competing in the 2012 competition, a delegation close in size to other nations, he says.

Nabil Hamdiyeh, a 44-year-old wheel-chair user competing in discus and shot-put, had not been to Jerusalem for 26 years.

"Despite the difficulties of being in Gaza, of training and exercise, we are ready for the games ... because of our motivation," he says.

"We hope to be great ambassadors to Palestine, and the Palestinian flag flying in the Olympics."

The athletes' main obstacles are the lack of training facilities and electricity shortages in the blockaded Gaza Strip, Okkeh says.

The Gaza government has not provided support, athletes say, but they are hopeful they may get aid for training in the future. The paralympic committee is funded by private donations, Gaza-based Secretary-General Ala Abdullah al-Shatli says.

Set up in 1993, the committee grew out of a rehabilitation center for people with disabilities -- "we moved from entertainment to competition," al-Shatli says.

The team has won three Paralympic medals, in games in Sydney and Athens.

Hala Sadi Shaqura, 26, a volunteer coach for the Paralympic team after forced retirement from women's football in Gaza, says she feels it is crucial to help people facing difficulty.

Once a footballer representing Gaza in international competitions, the team was brought to a halt when Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007. She is determined to find a way to set up a new women's football team in the coastal strip.

The Gaza team will join around 4,000 athletes competing over two weeks in London at the end of August at the 2012 Paralympics.
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