GAZA CITY: On March 30, Palestinians in Gaza began a series of mass protests against the Israeli occupation, vowing to return to the border every week in an unprecedented show of defiance.
The demonstrations began as they would go on, with scenes of horrific bloodshed. On the first Friday, at least 18 people were killed and hundreds wounded when Israeli troops targeted tens of thousands of unarmed civilians with rubber bullets, live ammunition and tear gas. The UN called for an investigation into the carnage, but the international outcry made little difference on the ground.
The following week, on April 6, at least nine Palestinians, including a journalist, were killed and scores more wounded — yet still the protesters kept coming. At least 118 Palestinians have now died during the protests.
Gaza, one of the most densely populated territories in the world, is being strangled by an Israeli land, sea and air blockade, imposed in 2007 when Hamas took control of the strip. Its economy is in recession and much of its infrastructure lies in ruins, with chronic shortages in essentials such as electricity and fuel.
Billed as the “Great March of Return,” the protests were inspired by “Land Day,” an annual event when Palestinians remember the deaths of six Arab citizens killed by Israeli forces during demonstrations over land confiscations in northern Israel in 1976.
While not everyone in Gaza supports the protests, many feel they have nothing to lose by gathering at the border. They include men, women and children of all ages.
Moeen Al-Sai, 58
With his two wives and 13 children, Moeen Al-Sai lived in a house barely 90 square meters in size in the Al-Shati refugee camp, west of Gaza city. Conditions were so tough that he once posted a message on Facebook saying he was willing to sell a kidney to raise money to feed his family. In the message, Al-Sai described the situation in Gaza as “unbearable,” and said he needed the funds to put a smile on the faces of his sons and daughters.
Al-Sai was shot by Israeli troops and spent three days in hospital before he died. His family told Arab News they particularly missed him during iftar, the meal Muslims share to break the daily fast during Ramadan. His son Mahmoud, who sells clothes in a shop, said: “My father used to tell us that he wanted to have a house for all of us, so that me, my wife and children could live with him. But this dream died with him when he was hit by an Israeli bullet.”
Hussein Salem Abu Aweidah, 41
Abu Oweidah was not even an active participant in the protests when he was fatally wounded by the Israeli army. Instead he was selling smoothies to the demonstrators from his roadside cart, just as he had done every week since the “Great March of Return” began.
The father of four dreamed of earning enough money to move his family out of their cramped, modestly built house in the neighborhood of Shuja’iyya to better accommodation elsewhere. He also hoped to earn enough to give his children a better education.
When Israeli troops shouted at the protesters through loudspeakers, warning them not to get too close to the border fence, Abu Oweidah would shout back, declaring that the demonstrators would never leave.
But on May 14 he was silenced — shot by one of the soldiers on the bloodiest day of the protests. He died in hospital on May 26. Now known as “the martyr, the seller of the smoothies,” he is survived by his wife, Sawsan, and children.
Wesal Sheikh Khalli, 14
The “Great March of Return” transformed Khalil from a child who liked to play hopscotch to an adolescent infuriated by the injustice she witnessed. “You are cowards,” she would scream at her aunts when they refused to join the border protests.
The teenager’s immediate family, who were impoverished even by Gaza’s standards, had no interest in politics. Only Khalil and her 11-year-old brother trekked weekly to the border to join the surging crowds and brave the thick black smoke produced by tires set on fire by the protesters.
Khalil, who was from the Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza, was shot dead on May 14. Before the protests, she was much like any other teenager in the strip. She loved playing in the streets and was learning to read the Qur’an with the help of an audio version of the book downloaded to her mother’s phone. At school, she loved math and wanted to teach the subject later in life.
Drawing was another passion. Just three weeks before her death, she made a sketch for her mother in one of her school notebooks. It showed some hearts and included the dedication: “To the love of my soul.”
Saadi Saaed Abu Salah, 15
Abu Salah was trying to raise a Palestinian flag at the border fence separating Gaza and Israel when a bullet fired by an Israeli soldier struck him in the chest.
His last words, delivered to his 13-year-old brother Zayed, were: “Tell my mother not to cry for me… ask her to forgive me.”
Abu Salah grew up in a family of farmers, helping his father tend olive trees and grow vegetables. He enjoyed swimming and managed to dig his own makeshift swimming pool near the family home.
The teenager was a frequent participant in the “Great March of Return” protests and often encouraged his school friends to join him at the demonstrations.
His sister Manar said: “Saadi left sorrow behind him with his 20 siblings. He was someone who would never say no when someone asked him for help.”
Abu Salah died from his wounds on May 28.
Mohammed Hamadeh, 30
Hamadeh celebrated his daughter Ritaj’s sixth birthday from his bed at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza city after being shot in both legs during the May 14 protests. He died from internal bleeding shortly afterwards, on June 4.
Like most Gazans, Hamadeh’s life was beset by poverty. The 30-year-old lived in Jabalia refugee camp, and provided for his family by rearing chickens and selling them to friends and relatives.
The fact that he could still not afford to send Ritaj to kindergarten, no matter how many chickens he sold, was a constant source of anguish for him.
His wife, Faten was in tears when she told Arab News: “We were living in difficult economic circumstances because of the lack of work and my husband’s bad health. Now that he is dead, I don’t know what our situation will be.”