Shawki Madi still cannot believe the embrace from his father that Friday would be their last.
The 16-year-old boy was playing football with friends on 11 December when a relative came to tell him that his father had been killed and that he should go home.
“I did not believe it, but I ran home and found everyone in tears,” Shawki told The Electronic Intifada.
Shawki’s father, Sami Madi, 41, had led a demonstration that day to mark the 48th anniversary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
Demonstrators headed for the boundary with Israel by al-Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza.
There, Israeli soldiers opened fire. It was not the first such demonstration since the “intifada of the knives” erupted in Jerusalem in October. At least 20 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in Gaza since then, most of them during demonstrations.
On this Friday, 17 unarmed people were wounded, including two children and a journalist. Only Sami was killed.
The PFLP had called for a “day of rage” — a common phrase denoting a day of popular demonstration and anger — to commemorate the anniversary, and urged its supporters to prove that Gaza can still play a role even when the focus is elsewhere. Demonstrating at the boundary was meant to show solidarity with those in the West Bank who are engaged in daily confrontations with the Israeli occupation.
That Gaza had played little role in these events disturbed Sami, said his father Shawki, for whom Sami’s son was named. “Demonstrating at the border gave him some relief; it proved that Gaza should not be out of the game,” he said.
The 68-year-old man denounced the deadly use of live fire against the unarmed protesters. “What kind of threat did my son and other protesters pose to heavily armed soldiers?” he asked. He referred to the footage of the demonstration as proof. “All they wanted to do was carry the Palestinian flag.”
Video from a protest in the same area last month shows Israeli forces firing on and critically wounding 22-year-old Muhammad al-Bhaisy after he mounted a Palestinian flag on the boundary fence.
Sami was a lifelong PFLP activist. His affiliation to the left wing Palestinian resistance faction began during the first Palestinian intifada in the mid-1980s when as a teenager he would throw stones at vehicles going to and from the Israeli settlements built on Gaza’s land.
He was wounded in both legs at 19 by two Israeli rubber-coated steel bullets and his father remembers him as a “rebellious” youth. “That was observed in the first intifada,” Shawki said.
As a law student, Sami represented the PFLP in universities and colleges across Gaza, where he organized activities to raise the political and the revolutionary awareness of Palestinian students.
In Deir al-Balah, where he was born and raised, his small rented apartment looks shabby. Its foundations were weakened during Israel’s bombardments last year as well as by floods during Gaza’s rainy season.
He is well-known here among other residents. He was the head of the PFLP’s factional committee in Deir al-Balah, a group that responded to emergencies as part of its duties. During Israeli attacks, members of the committee would help evacuate people in areas under attack.
To be effective, they had to be quick. And Sami was fast. According to Aysar Aman, the PFLP representative in central Gaza, Sami’s speed of thought and action was “a lifesaver” for many in Deir al-Balah and other areas.
Aman remembers Sami fondly. “He was a devoted comrade. He provided leadership. He was always effective,” Aman said.
He also used to distribute food parcels for people in remote areas during wars, said Aman, a job that demanded real courage.
“He managed to deliver basic relief for people in wars, even though he knew that he was a potential target,” he added.
Sami’s funeral saw people from near and far flock to his house to offer condolences, much to the family’s surprise. He was remembered in a speech given by the PFLP’s leader in Gaza, Jamil Mizher, on 12 December, in another rally marking the movement’s 48th anniversary.
Calling him “a defiant fighter whose blood will be a further step on liberation’s path,” Mizher added, “He was a dedicated comrade, and an eloquent orator whose deeds matched his words.”
Sami was also the head of the media committee of the PFLP in which capacity he would produce documentaries about the Palestinian cause. What would prove to be his last production is about the Nakba — the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 — and will be shown as part of the movement’s anniversary commemorations.
Above all, Sami was a family man. The eldest son of Shawki, he was, in the words of his father, “obliging and responsible.”
A former policeman, he drew a wage with the Palestinian Authority with which he would help pay for his siblings’ education.
“We are all indebted to him,” said his brother Mahmoud, for whom Sami paid university tuition fees.
Sami leaves behind seven children, the youngest a two-year-old girl.
“What breaks my heart is that his children have started to call me ‘dad’ instead of ‘grandfather.’ They are not prepared to absorb the ordeal of losing their father,” Shawki said.
Isra Saleh el-Namey is a journalist from Gaza.