I met Ahmed al-Rantisi in February 2016. He seemed nervous but I wasn’t sure why.
So I asked our mutual friend, Khader, who was with Ahmed at the time. Khader told me that Ahmed was attracted to a young woman we could see walking in the street with her friends.
As Ahmed was too shy to approach the woman, Khader and I went and talked to her. After introducing ourselves, we asked for her address, so that Ahmed could visit her family with a marriage proposal.
It was my only contact with Ahmed.
On 14 May this year, I came home, feeling weary after covering the latest massacre committed by Israel. When I opened my laptop, I saw pictures of Ahmed on the Internet. He was one of around 60 demonstrators killed on that day. He was 27 years old.
Learning that Ahmed was among them saddened me, even though I had just met him once. I began to weep.
The next morning I phoned Khader to console him. Later, we both went to Ahmed’s funeral. The sense of shock among the mourners was almost palpable.
Ahmed did actually marry the woman he was too shy to approach. Her name is Hanan.
She is 24 and graduated with a teaching degree from the Islamic University of Gaza, where Ahmed was studying business administration.
Their daughter, Mariam, is less than a year old.
Mariam has just started walking. When I stopped by to see Hanan, Mariam took a few steps towards a photograph of her dad and touched it.
The reminder was painful for Hanan. She apologized for being unable to talk.
In our brief conversation, Hanan recalled her last moments with Ahmed. Before leaving for the Great Return March, Ahmed told her she should go for a walk by the seafront that evening and buy some groceries for Ramadan.
“And he asked me to pray for him,” Hanan said. “I still hear his voice in my head saying that.”
Defying Israel’s orders
Despite his shyness, Ahmed displayed courage in standing up for his people. He was killed after he joined a group of protesters who ventured towards the boundary between Gaza and Israel.
He defied Israel’s orders to stay away from the boundary so that he could demand rights which he had been denied.
Ahmed grew up in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City. Yet his family is originally from Yibna, a village in historic Palestine that was attacked by Israeli forces in June 1948. They fled to Gaza as a result.
Throughout the past seven decades, the UN General Assembly has repeatedly recognized that Palestinian refugees are entitled to go home. The Great Return March has asserted that right, while drawing attention to how Israel violates it.
Ahmed’s connections to Hamas give Israel no excuse for killing him and other unarmed demonstrators. Under international human rights law, it is illegal for Israeli snipers – shielded by two fences – to open fire on protesters.
May was an ominous month for Fadi Abu Salmi.
In May 2008, Fadi was badly injured when Israel bombed the Khan Younis area of Gaza. He was standing near his home with some friends when the bombing occurred.
Both of Fadi’s legs were amputated following that attack.
Fadi’s family is originally from Isdud. Now called Ashdod, the port city is a short distance from Gaza. Yet the Abu Salmi family is unable to go back there.
They had to leave after Isdud was attacked by Israeli forces in late 1948.
Thirty-year-old Fadi underscored the family’s roots in Isdud by taking part in the Great Return March on 14 May this year.
“It was like he felt something was going to happen,” said his wife Mona. “He kept telling me to take care of the children and myself. He was worried before leaving the house.”
Fadi was killed soon after that anxious conversation took place, 10 years to the day after the terrible injuries he suffered to his legs in Khan Younis.
This time he was hit by a live bullet in the chest, while protesting in an area east of Khan Younis.
“My father didn’t do anything wrong,” said Fadi’s 8-year-old son Ziad. “He just wanted to ask for his rights.”
Fadi’s story resembles that of Ibrahim Abu Thurayya.
He, too, was a double amputee – because of an Israeli bombing a decade ago. Abu Thurayya was killed in December 2017 near Gaza’s boundary with Israel. He was protesting against the announcement by President Donald Trump that the US planned to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Like Fadi, Abu Thurayya refused to be silenced by his oppressor. Losing both his legs, he once said, was “not the end of the world and life should go on.”
“She will never come back”
Reem al-Sheikh Khalil tried to stop her 14-year-old teenage daughter Wesal from protesting on 14 May.
Although she had previously permitted Wesal to take part in the Great Return March since it began on 30 March, Reem felt that Monday was different, that the likelihood of Israeli violence was especially high.
“I was not comfortable and worried about her,” said Reem. “But she insisted on going.”
Eventually, Reem agreed that Wesal could participate, on the condition that she was accompanied by her younger brother Mohammed.
Reem asked her daughter to stay away from the boundary.
But after they arrived at the protest, Wesal started running in the direction of the boundary, along with other young people. Soon, she was shot in the head. Mohammed saw that her face was covered in blood. He ran towards her but he was afraid to get too close.
So, he came home, crying and screaming. He told his mother what had happened and they both went to al-Aqsa hospital in central Gaza.
Reem searched around the hospital but could not find Wesal anywhere. After about an hour, she heard someone say that there was a girl’s body in the morgue which had not been identified.
“I walked slowly towards the morgue and then I found Wesal on the bed,” said Reem. “I went closer to her, hugged her and cried. I knew that she will never come back. I will miss her.”
Wesal was an ambitious girl who “dreamed of becoming a journalist,” said Reem. “She always stood in front of the mirror acting like a reporter.”
A doctor’s brother
One image that was widely shared on Facebook and Twitter following the 14 May massacre showed Motasem al-Nono beside the dead body of his 30-year-old brother Motaz.
Motasem is a doctor at al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City. On 14 May, he was so busy treating people who were injured that he barely glanced at many of their faces.
“When Motaz arrived at the hospital, other doctors were checking his injuries,” said Motasem. “I saw him while I was walking and felt weird and stepped back. I looked into his face and realized it was my brother. He died within minutes.”
“What kills me is that I was not able to save my brother,” he added. “Israel uses bullets that don’t give people any chance of survival.”
Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a journalist from Gaza.