Atia Younis has been a regular participant in Gaza’s Great March of Return since it began on 30 March last year.
He has attended all but one of the protests held each Friday. The sole time Younis missed a demonstration was in July – after he inhaled tear gas sprayed by Israeli forces. Being exposed to this chemical weapon left the 67-year-old unwell for a week, during which time he endured muscle spasms.
The incident was frightening.
Younis had brought 14 of his grandsons with him to a tent erected about 500 meters from the fence separating Gaza and Israel. They were singing patriotic songs and playing a game to see who knew the most Palestinian placenames, when the Israeli military began firing in their direction.
“My grandsons started to scream and run,” said Younis, who lives in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city.
Amid the panic, Younis left the tent and tried to locate his grandsons. Initially, he was only able to find four of them.
“I felt helpless, everyone was running from the smoke and it was a big mess,” Younis said. “I kept calling the names of my grandsons. I was praying to God not to lose any of them.”
It took approximately 30 minutes before it was possible to see through the thick white fog of tear gas. Luckily, all of Younis’ grandsons were safe.
“For a moment, I felt it was wrong to take the children [to the protests],” Younis said. On further reflection, Younis came to the conclusion that he had not sought to put them in harm’s way.
Like most people in Gaza, Younis is a refugee. His family hails from Barbara, a village in historic Palestine that was ethnically cleansed by the Israeli military in the last few months of 1948.
The weekly protests assert that Palestinian refugees have a right return to towns and villages from which they and their relatives were expelled. The right has been recognized by the United Nations.
Younis points to how the march has continued despite Israel’s extreme violence as evidence of its effectiveness. “But Gaza still needs the support of the West Bank and Arab countries,” he said.
Reading for rights
Mustafa al-Zatma, 28, another Rafah resident, is an engineer in the private sector.
“I have a good job here and have ambitions to work in an international engineering company,” he said. “I love my life but this doesn’t prevent me from participating in the march – like all my people to demand the right of return.”
His family is originally from al-Majdal, a village which was captured by Israeli troops in November 1948. Ashkelon – a city in Israel – has been built on the village’s remains.
During one of the weekly protests al-Zatma joined a number of his friends to organize a reading chain. It involved sitting in circles and opening books around 700 meters from the boundary fence.
“This event was a message to the world that the people participating in the Great March of Return are educated people, who are aware of the Palestinians’ rights,” he said.
The distance from the fence and the fact that the activity was clearly peaceful did not stop Israel from firing tear gas towards the readers.
Insisting that he is “totally with” the march, al-Zatma nonetheless thinks that the protests’ organizers should prevent children from taking part. “Children are widely targeted by Israeli snipers,” he said.
Almost 200 Palestinians have been killed during the weekly protests since their launch at the end of March 2018. More than 40 of them were children.
“I saw Azzam fall”
Twelve-year-old Iyad Barbakh disagrees with suggestions that children should not be allowed to take part.
“If I was prevented from participating in the march, I would find a way to do so,” he said. “I go to the march to demand the same rights as any other child in the world.”
By far the worst thing that happened to Iyad in the past year was that his friend Azzam Oweida was shot by an Israeli sniper. He died shortly thereafter.
“I saw Azzam fall to the ground with blood on his face,” said Iyad. “I will never forget him.”
Iyad himself has been injured twice during the protests.
On the first occasion, he was hit by a tear gas projectile. He required treatment for burns as a result.
On the second occasion, Iyad was shot in the arm and leg during February this year. He has kept joining the protests despite these additional injuries.
Two women and one girl have been killed in the weekly protests.
Malina al-Hindy participates in the demonstrations, along with her husband and children.
“Women have always been side by side with men in all areas of Palestinian resistance,” she said. “It’s our duty to participate in the march.”
Al-Hindy has paid a price for her defiance. She has been injured three times with tear gas projectiles and twice with live bullets while protesting over the past year.
One killing to have gained international attention was that of Razan al-Najjar. A volunteer medic, she was shot dead by an Israeli sniper in June as she was treating wounded protesters.
The killing proved that health workers operate at extreme risk.
Alaa al-Ajramy is among those medics who has been busy during each of the weekly protests. The 34-year-old admitted that he feels a sense of great tension during the eight-hour shifts he works on Fridays.
“I’m not afraid of death or of not seeing my four children again,” he said. “But I can’t imagine being in the place of one of those young people, who lost their ability to use an arm or a leg again.”
More than 100 amputations have been carried out because of injuries to protesters, Gaza’s health ministry has stated. Around 25 of those requiring amputations were children.
The most harrowing experience which al-Ajramy went through was to witness the killing of his colleague Mousa Jaber Abu Hassanein in May.
“My friend bled for 15 minutes,” said al-Ajramy. “And during that time we were not able to reach him because of the heavy fire around him. We couldn’t intervene to save his life.”
Journalists are also in danger at the demonstrations. Two have been killed while covering the protests.
Their deaths have not deterred colleagues from chronicling the full extent of Israel’s cruelty.
The only protection which one particular journalist has been given is that the news agency for which he works publishes his video reports without naming him.
The journalist explained that his worst day was when Israel massacred about 60 protesters last year on 14 May.
The journalist was working in eastern Gaza when Israeli troops opened fire. “Suddenly, everyone around me started falling to the ground,” he said. “Some were shot in the head, others in the arm or leg. It was very difficult. I turned on my camera and crawled among the crowd.”
Admired among colleagues for his bravery, the journalist has kept on venturing to within 100 meters of the boundary fence. “I get close to the fence, so that I can be close to the demonstrators,” he said. “I try to document Israel’s crimes against these people.”
Sarah Algherbawi is a freelance writer and translator from Gaza.