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'She prayed she would be martyred': Gaza parents mourn their dead

The Guardian logo The Guardian 16/05/2018 Oliver Holmes and Hazem Balousha in Gaza
Mourners at the funeral of an eight-month-old child in Gaza City. © Getty Images Mourners at the funeral of an eight-month-old child in Gaza City.

At 14 years old, Wesal Sheikh Khalil had already made plans for her funeral. If Israeli troops were to shoot her during protests on the Gaza border, the Palestinian teenager had told her mother, she should be buried at the spot where she died or in the plot next to her grandfather’s grave.

“She thought death was better than this life,” said Reem Abu Irmana a day after she lost her youngest daughter. “Every time she went to the demonstrations she prayed to God that she would be martyred.”

Wesal was one of more than 60 people killed in Gaza on Monday as Israeli snipers fired on gatherings of tens of thousands along a perimeter fence surrounding the blockaded enclave.

According to Gaza’s ministry of health, the dead included an eight-month-old baby who reportedly died after inhaling teargas. A double amputee who was photographed throwing stones from a wheelchair was also killed.

Several of the dead were members of Hamas, the group that runs Gaza and has fought three wars with Israel. At least 1,300 people were wounded by live fire, Gaza’s health ministry said.

Funerals on Tuesday coincided with the anniversary of the Nakba, or catastrophe, commemorating the more than 700,000 people who fled or were expelled from their homes in the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation.

For six weeks, demonstrators have rallied in the “great march of return”, a movement symbolising their desire to return to their ancestral homes. Monday’s protest, the bloodiest to date, was focused on fury over the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem on the same day.

Wesal, who turned 14 in December, had been inspired by the marches and started to think intensely about “martyrdom”, her mother said.

For a decade, Israel and Egypt have imposed tight restrictions of the movement of goods and people into Gaza, and Abu Irmana said life had become unbearable for her seven children, with the family having to move every three or four months as they could not afford the rent.

“May God help the people who are living here,” she said, speaking surrounded by friends and family all crammed into a tiny room under a corrugated iron roof.

The family say they are from a small village they have never visited in what is now Israel. Three generations have lived in Gaza’s cramped al-Bureij refugee camp, in a section of the neighbourhood that residents call Block D.

Wesal never left Gaza, Abu Irmana said, recalling a girl she described as “full of joy”. Wesal had written a song for her mother’s upcoming birthday, which she had memorised and sung around the house in her last days.

Her 21-year-old brother had warned her not to go to the protests, threatening – as a joke – that he would break her legs if she tried. But she was steadfast, her mother said. “She said: ‘If I had one leg I would go. If both were broken, I would crawl.’”

Wesal’s 11-year-old brother Mohammed was with her when she was killed. He said she had been given wire cutters by other protesters and was shot in the head near the fence.

Israel’s military said on Monday that Hamas planned to “carry out a massacre in Israel”. However, no one pushed through, and since the weekly protests began on 30 March no Israeli has been harmed, except for one soldier lightly wounded in an unspecified incident.

Mohammed wanted to return to Tuesday’s protests, which were much smaller, but his mother forbade it. “My life is the same,” Abu Irmana said when asked about her plans for the future. “The only change is I don’t have a daughter.”

In Gaza City on Tuesday, shops selling snacks and fresh watermelons stayed open and children played football. Streets of the enclave were quieter than usual. “It feels like wartime again,” said one resident.

A road was blocked off by a blue tarpaulin tent. Dozens of men, old and young, sat on plastic chairs to mourn the death of Yazen al-Toubasi, another casualty from Monday. The 23-year-old cleaner had a son under the age of two.

Toubasi’s father, Ibrahim, sat among neighbours. “All the world is squeezing this small place called Gaza,” he said in a soft, fractured voice. He too had been protesting. He said it was a “national duty” for all Palestinians to continue.

Toubasi had not approached the fence but had stayed in one of the tents set up several hundred metres back for a sit-in. “Even if he tried to throw a stone, it wouldn’t reach them,” his father said.

Green flags belonging to Hamas had been positioned in the road, and a poster with Toubasi’s name embossed on it also showed photos of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam.

Hamas has paid for funeral services and donated money to the families of the dead and wounded, a move Israel condemns. Toubasi’s father said his son was not affiliated to one political group but supported “all the factions”.

As he spoke, people walked up and hugged him, often whispering condolences into his ears. “Thank you,” he replied politely to each.

“The Palestinian cause was abandoned and it is back to the forefront,” he said, promising to return to the frontier with Israel for further demonstrations. “I will be in Yazen’s place tomorrow.” 

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