For the 78th straight Friday, Nada Shaikh Deeb, 23, collects her first aid kit contents inside her little asbestos-roofed bedroom in Khan Yunis camp in the southern Gaza strip and gets ready to go to the fence.
She is a volunteer paramedic. The call from the van driver says, 2:45 PM, and she takes a final look at her lipstick and nail polish in a broken piece of mirror.
Her grandmother, Malak Kilani, 68, gets out her FM radio to tune in the protest news.
“She [Nada] has put me on edge and worried since the beginning of the demonstrations,” Kilani says. “When the announcer gives the latest news about injuries, my blood begins boiling over this mad granddaughter. Four of her coworkers were killed at the fence! Will she be happy if I die of heartbreak?”
Nada smiles but gets her coat on. “When I see downed men writhing in pain, it moves me like a fired arrow to rescue them,” she says. “I felt that same pain when the canister hit my leg.”
Nada was injured last January near the fence and still has pain in her leg when she runs. But she has gone out to the fence week after week.
She leaves the house by a narrow lane that threads between contiguous and crowded houses in the camp and walks to a roundabout two kilometers away. She waits there for the Palestinian Medical Relief Society van that will take her to the Gaza-Israel border, a few miles east.
She says nothing will stop her from going since she was questioned by Israeli officers about the killing of 20-year-old paramedic Razan Al-Najjar in June 2018. She was giving testimony about rescue duties last November when an officer taunted her.
“You’ve still got time to catch up with Razan,” he said. “Expect anything.”
“The officer replied with a laugh when I asked if my turn is imminent,” Nada recalls, while hurrying across the uneven ground about 180 meters from the three meters high barbed-wire-topped fence. “I guess that canister was just the beginning. But really I don’t care.”
The paramedic, who is paid the equivalent of 200 US dollars a month for her volunteer work, said she still experiences mixed feelings of concern and indifference following that taunt.
For months, the world took notice of the death of al-Najjar, killed while treating the wounded at the protests against Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. Even as she was buried, she became a symbol of the Great March of Return.
The bullet that killed Razan was fired by an Israeli sniper into a crowd that included white-coated medics in plain view. A detailed reconstruction, stitched together from hundreds of crowd-sourced videos and photographs, shows that neither the medics nor anyone around them posed any apparent threat of violence to Israeli personnel.
At least 213 Palestinians have been shot dead, four of them medics, since the protests began in March 2018. Thousands have been wounded. One Israeli has been killed.
The uncharacteristic calm as the paramedics chatted was broken by a hail of gas canisters dropping down on the protesters’ heads. The demonstrators scattered, and the crowd suddenly looked grayish-white in the hazy and foggy field.
Nada was screaming out for a stretcher. One of the canisters had hit and fractured a child’s leg. Nada had scooped up the downed 14 year old. While the stretcher was coming, she sprayed saline solution in his eyes to wash away the gas. Then the child was rushed to an ambulance parked 50 yards away.
“The child’s age was no protection for him,” Nada said. “We are all the same in the field, whether a medic, a child, a protester, a photojournalist. We face an aggressive machine of killing. Even a robot might differentiate a little bit.”
A minute later, the protesters had washed held back the tears and finally caught their breaths. The whizzes of slingshots used by the protesters to hurl stones at the Israel troops at the frontline were soon answered by deadly whizzes: a flurry of bullets from the other side of the border.
The clash ended in around ten minutes. And as sunset announced the end of another Friday of protests, hundreds walked tired toward home. A reported 49 were wounded across the five locations of protests along the eastern border of Gaza.
However, the sunset was not the end of the duty for Nada. She walked calmly alone towards the fence to check up for any child whose cries had failed to reach others. “In some cases a child or a woman get shot in the back as they go home,” she said. “They might die silently.”
Fortunately, Nada’s exploration was negative.
Reda al-Najjar, 30, one of Nada’s coworkers, confessed that she is less enthusiastic. “Nada is incomparable as a volunteer,” she said. “She works like a watchtower scanning for victims or even a coughing child and immediately finds her. The crowd cheers her when she runs quickly to a disturbance– even if it turns out to be people fighting or joking with one another.
“We all learn humanity, empathy and compassion from Nada.”
At 7:00 p.m, grandma, who had phoned twice during the routine Friday, called to tell Nada to hurry up to “put your final touches” on grandma’s favorite dish, spinach. “This Popeye’s dish will supply me a dose of iron for the next Friday,” Nada said.
Coming home, she looks into the mirror to see her face smeared by teargas and the smoke of burning tires. She sorts through her first aid materials, and her nail polish and lipstick, strewn on the little table.
“Maybe it is time to get a new makeup bag, not a first aid kit,” I said.
Nada shakes her head. “That day seems far away, so long as Gaza is in pain.”