Friday, February 23. 10:00 pm
I stared at Yousef al-Dayah’s selfie. High cheekbones. Light brown hair, much of it under a baseball cap. Thick eyebrows slightly raised, lending an air of surprise to an otherwise pensive, soulful 14-year-old face.
The Great Return March earlier that day had been a blur of action. Ribbons of tear gas and repeated bursts of live fire, sometimes followed by shouts of “Someone’s wounded!” Was the last of these incidents that I witnessed the moment that Yousef had been shot in the chest and killed?
I had started my day at 6:00 am with a long run on the beach. Surf meeting shore drowned out the buzzing of weaponized drones as I navigated around pipes spewing raw sewage into the sea. But the waves couldn’t block the two thundering explosions that reverberated as I neared Gaza’s seaport. There was no one around for me to gauge reactions in order to determine the source.
An hour later, I was sitting at one of Gaza City’s beach-side hotels, having breakfast with my colleague Fadi, his wife Safa, and their children, nine year-old Ali, five-year old Karam and one-year old Adam. The two older boys were running around the near-empty restaurant playing war games, fingers substituting for guns. Knowing the context of these boys’ lives, I winced when Ali pinned his little brother to the ground and “executed” him with a finger to the back of his head. Karam obligingly played dead for a few seconds before springing back to life, chasing Ali.
I turned my attention to the window, which afforded a good view of the shore below. A woman in full abaya (robe) and hijab (head scarf) was wading into the sea. Her two children followed and soon the family members were splashing one another as the kids scampered back and forth from the water to the sand. My eyes scanned a few meters south, where four children playing on the beach had been killed in the 2014 war by shelling from Israeli navy boats.
That afternoon, Fadi and I headed to Malaka, east of Gaza City, so that I could observe the “Great Return March.” The weekly demonstrations at the barrier separating Gaza from Israel began on March 30, protesting the Israeli siege on Gaza, and demanding the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their native villages. According to al-Mezan Center for Human Rights, nearly 200 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the March, and over 14,000 others wounded. Fadi buckled his flak jacket as we walked towards the lush green fields on which the separation fence had been erected. Fruit, vegetables and olive groves had once grown here, Fadi explained to me, but in recent years, Israeli soldiers shot at farmers they deemed too close to the barrier. Farmers began growing wheat, which required little maintenance aside from planting and harvesting, thus reducing their risk. Since the start of the demonstrations, however, the fields could not be used for agriculture at all.
The demonstration had yet to get fully under way. A few hundred people, the majority of them children (girls and young women among them), hurled stones towards a metal fence approximately 150 meters away, as Israeli army jeeps drove back and forth along the dirt road just beyond. “You see those mounds of dirt?” Fadi pointed them out to me; they looked like massive ant-hills. “That’s where the snipers are.”
Two boys, no older than 11 or 12, carried tires to further fuel a plume of black smoke, as the distinctive pop and sizzle of tear gas canisters permeated the air.
And then, a sharper crack. “Live fire,” Fadi said.
A moment later, the protestors all dashed towards one spot, as shouts of “Someone’s wounded!” rang out. I zoomed my video camera on the mass of youth. Moments later, medics emerged from the crowd, carrying a young man on a stretcher. I caught a quick look at his bloodied leg as the stretcher passed us en route to a waiting ambulance. Media cameras jostled each other to get a better view as the medics loaded the youth into the ambulance.
I turned my attention back to the field. A handful of kids were running closer to the barrier, darting back when tear gas enveloped them. One teenager triumphantly grabbed a freshly shot canister, gas still spouting forth, and hurled it back towards the jeeps. I was so intent on filming this moment that I almost missed the sound of live fire, followed once again by calls of “Someone’s wounded!” I shifted my camera towards the demonstrators running to the site of the injury, with medics emerging with the wounded on a stretcher.
A young man with a brown Adidas T-shirt caught my eye. I noticed his metal crutches immediately, but it took me a moment to realize that his right jeans leg was pinned up above his knee. He agreed to an interview, wrapping a black and white kuffiyeh around his face to conceal his identity.
His name was Atallah, he told us, and he was 18 years old. He had lost his leg at this very encampment on April 13, 2018. He returned to the protests four months after his release from the hospital. He comes to encourage the other youth to protest, and cross the barrier. “They’re afraid of the occupation,” he said.
“You’re not scared?” I asked him.
“No. I’m not afraid of death, I’m only afraid of God.”
Atallah insisted that his life has not changed at all since the amputation of his leg, even when Fadi pressed the question. “No, no, it’s just the same as before. I am moving, running, and walking, the same as anyone else.”
Atallah made his way on his crutches towards a group of children and youth slinging stones with slingshots at an armored car, black smoke billowing.
Approximately 4:00 pm–the sound of more live fire. I directed my camera towards the cry of, “There’s an injury!” when a tear gas canister landed a few meters behind us. The wind carried the gas in our direction. Eyes burning, Fadi and I decided it was time to leave. We headed to his car, passing a group of chanting adults marching towards the field. The numbers had swelled to several thousand since our arrival.
I checked the time–I was late for my reunion with Munir and John. I had first met Munir and John 15 years ago, in Munir’s taxi. I’d remained in touch with Munir, but had not since seen John, an American aid worker. A few days before, John had informed Munir that he was coming to Gaza, and Munir wanted to host us both. Fadi dropped me off at the meeting point, and within minutes Munir was driving John and me in his battered yellow Mercedes taxi to his home, as we reminisced about the day in October 2004 in which we had met–in that very car.
There had been a large military operation in Gaza and Erez crossing had been eerily quiet. I had climbed into Munir’s taxi with John and a European journalist named Lina. The road leading from Erez had been sealed off by the Israeli army, which had built in its place a raised dirt road, lined by tanks—one of which opened fire on us.
“Back up! Back up!” Lina had shrieked as she, John and I crouched on the taxi floor. Munir, his knuckles white on the steering wheel, threw the car into reverse; the tires churning sand helplessly before taking grip and allowing the Mercedes to back out of range of the tank fire.
I reminded John and Munir what Lina, red-faced, had sputtered once the shooting had stopped: “I’ve been shot at by the Serbs, by the Chechans, by the Croats…but this is the only time I’ve been shot at by a democracy!”
Lina had not returned to Gaza since then, Munir told us. John laughed. “I guess being shot at by a democracy once was enough for her.”
We reflected on the changes in Gaza since the last time we had been together in Munir’s taxi. Hamas rule of the Gaza Strip, three devastating wars, the tightened siege. The conversation turned towards the explosions I had heard on the beach that morning. Munir said they had been rockets shot by Hamas into the sea. “For ‘testing,’” he explained.
After lunch, we sat in Munir’s salon drinking coffee. Munir’s dark-eyed son Waseem told me he was turning 11 years old on Tuesday—would I come for his birthday?
“I would love to, Waseem! What kind of present do you want?”
“Nothing, just for you to come,” he answered, but then, after more reflection: “Whatever gift you want to give me.” And then, whispering shyly in my ear a few minutes later: “Did you decide yet what my gift will be?”
I had one other stop to make on my way home. I had been invited to the wedding of Shareef’s brother, Ahmad. Shareef, his wife Hedaya, and their young children Mohammed and Maria welcomed me warmly. I watched the family celebrate, thinking about Zain. I first met the family in 2015, in relation to an article I was writing for Al Jazeera America. Shareef and Hedaya’s three-year old son, Zain, had had a congenital heart ailment and needed follow-up surgery in Tel Aviv. The Israel Security Agency had a condition: Hedaya must agree to “cooperate” with them—code for becoming an informant. Hedaya refused, and Zain was unable to get to Tel Aviv for his surgery. Eventually, Shareef and Hedaya had managed to enter Egypt during one of Rafah crossing’s rare openings, and travelled to Turkey where Zain’s heart surgery was performed. There were complications; Zain died a few days later.
The wedding ended, and I returned to Fadi and Safa’s home, intending to go right to sleep. Fadi greeted me with somber news. 14-year-old Yousef al-Dayah had been shot in the chest and killed at the Malaka encampment of the Great Return March. The time of the shooting was around 4:00 pm, the same approximate time as the final shooting we had witnessed. I sat on the couch staring at Yousef’s selfie on my phone. His eyes, his arms emerging from his T-shirt as he reached out to snap the self-portrait. Thoughts of Yousef merged with images from the day. The mother and her children splashing each other in the sea. Atallah’s bravado as he insisted that his life had not changed, his jeans leg pinned where his leg used to be. The rockets exploding into the sea–possible harbingers of a new war that many in Gaza fear is impending. Waseem shyly coaxing me to tell him what his birthday present would be. Hedaya and Shareef dancing, pain still visible in their eyes.
I finally tore my eyes away from Yousef’s selfie, closed the phone, and stretched out on the mat to sleep, as weaponized drones buzzed overhead.