In the past nine months, about 6,500 Gazans have been shot in the leg at demonstrations, and 500 have been permanently disabled. Amnesty International said soldiers are using high-velocity weapons designed to cause maximum harm to protesters who don't pose an imminent threat.

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Shrouded in a cloud of black smoke from burning tires in the Gaza Strip, Mahmoud Malalha was hit in the left leg by an Israeli army sniper.

In the hopelessness of Hamas-ruled Gaza, Malalha’s generation of young men are taught to see their crutches as a badge of honor in the war against Israel. Back from the hospital after multiple surgeries and physical therapy, they are met by family and neighbors bearing cakes and candy, with high fives from their pals and their mothers ululating with pride.

Only once he left Gaza’s Shifa hospital did reality hit. In the nine months since a campaign of weekly protests against Israel was launched, Gaza health officials say 101 Palestinians have had their legs amputated after being hit by army snipers told to aim at the lower body to avoid killing demonstrators.

Thousands more have suffered sometimes incapacitating leg wounds in an impoverished territory that’s ill-equipped to offer opportunities to its many disabled.

“It was great at first,” said Malalha, 28, sitting in a clinic with a dozen other men in wheelchairs or walking with crutches, some of them missing legs. “Now I can barely walk, nobody will hire me for a job and I don’t see anything useful that I can do with my life in Gaza.”

More than 220 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers have been killed over the past nine months of “March of Return” demonstrations against Israel led by Hamas. But the plight of the thousands wounded at the protests and other bouts of violence with Israel is often overshadowed.

In all, about 6,500 Gazans have been shot in the leg at the demonstrations, and 500 have been permanently disabled, according to local health officials. Human rights group Amnesty International said the nature of the injuries shows that soldiers are using high-velocity weapons designed to cause maximum harm to protesters who don’t pose an imminent threat.

“These apparently deliberate attempts to kill and maim are deeply disturbing, not to mention completely illegal,” the group said in a report. “Some of these cases appear to amount to willful killing, a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and a war crime.”

Malalha said he was one of a crowd of protesters in eastern Gaza City burning tires and approaching the fence when he was wounded.

“The situation in Gaza is so desperate that boys grow up thinking that the glory in fighting the occupation is worth getting injured or killed,” said Faddel Abu Hein, a psychiatrist in Gaza City. “Then they wake up with their leg amputated at the knee and say to themselves, ‘why did I do that?'”

Israel doesn’t view the protests as benign. Their declared aim is to reclaim homes in Israel that Palestinians fled or were expelled from in the fighting surrounding the Jewish state’s 1948 creation. But demonstrators repeatedly try to infiltrate Israel, assault soldiers with explosives and rocks, and have launched hundreds of incendiary kites and balloons across the border to destroy farmland and nature reserves.

The army didn’t respond to a request for comment on the preponderance of leg wounds.

In the territory’s overstretched hospitals, limbs that could have been saved under normal circumstances are often lost because of bone infections such as osteomyelitis, which is difficult to diagnose in ordinary circumstances but worse in Gaza because of the lack of advanced laboratory facilities. Approximately 25 percent of patients in Gaza who suffered open fractures from gunshot wounds develop bone infections, according to Doctors Without Borders.

While Gaza glorifies its war-wounded, there’s not much money to help the disabled in an isolated territory where poverty is rife. The economy is on the verge of collapse, largely due to a decade-old Israeli and Egyptian blockade and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s withholding of funds.

The pervasiveness of shattered legs led to the creation of a soccer team made up only of amputees. Led by a member of the Palestinian Paralympic Committee, players use crutches to traverse the field, and many say it’s lifted their spirits after feeling a sense of hopelessness.

“Before they cut off my leg, I was hoping to become a professional soccer player,” says Mohammed Musabeh, 17, who was shot while approaching the border fence to hang a Palestinian flag. “That buried my dreams but I’m trying to carry on, and the crutches let me still play ball with my friends.”