Sometimes you have to put horrific images at the back of your mind.
During Israel’s 51-day attack on Gaza in the summer of 2014, I saw tens of dead bodies. The worst thing I witnessed was the targeting of a car about 10 meters from where I was standing. I could see its driver take his last breath before he died.
At that moment, my whole body went cold. For several days, I could not think of anything but that appalling scene. I was unable to sleep for about a week.
Events moved fast that summer. I tried my best to forget about the incident and to get on with my life.
More than three years have passed. And despite my efforts to put that experience behind me, I know that the mental scars it left have not healed. Like so many other people in Gaza, I am vulnerable.
That was proven on 8 December last, when protesters in Gaza expressed their rage at Donald Trump’s announcement two days earlier that the US would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Mahmoud al-Masri was among the protesters killed by Israeli troops that day.
I had looked on as Mahmoud ran towards the fence separating the Khan Younis area of Gaza from Israel. Mahmoud was brave and defiant. He kept running despite that Israeli forces were firing tear gas canisters in his direction.
Mahmoud climbed the fence, waving a Palestinian flag. He was shot in the back by Israeli soldiers.
When Mahmoud fell down, the Israeli soldiers kept on firing. He lay on the ground, bleeding for around an hour before the shooting had stopped. By the time anyone could offer him assistance, Mahmoud had lost consciousness.
“We reached Mahmoud when he was taking his last breaths,” Musab Abu Shawish, a paramedic, told me. “We were not able to do anything for him, except give him some oxygen.”
The killing of Mahmoud left me feeling helpless. But it was not the sight of his dead body that upset me most – I was not standing close enough to Mahmoud to see his face.
Instead, it was a video that showed his father, Abd al-Majeed, saying goodbye to Mahmoud in a mortuary.
“Please leave me with my son,” Abd al-Majeed told the people around him. Observing his pain, my whole body shook and I started to weep uncontrollably.
I did not know Mahmoud personally but I have learned about him from his father. Mahmoud, aged 29, had been a construction worker. He was hoping to set up his own carpentry business and raise enough money so that he could join his brother Ahmad, who emigrated to Sweden a few years ago.
Mahmoud “always hated injustice,” his father told me. “He was very kind and helpful.”
There are strong indications that Mahmoud knew he would be killed on 8 December.
The previous evening, he wrote on Facebook: “If we die seeking martyrdom, we die standing like trees.” The banner image on his Facebook page featured a photograph of Yasser Arafat and a quotation attributed to the late leader on how Jerusalem is at the heart of the Palestinian struggle.
Mahmoud was in many respects typical of the young people who have protested against Trump’s announcement.
Nayif al-Salibi is another young man with dreams and ambitions. He is now studying civil engineering at the Islamic University of Gaza. Once he graduates, he hopes to pursue a master’s degree in Germany.
No negotiations on Jerusalem
He took part in the same demonstration as Mahmoud on 8 December. When I met Nayif, his eyes were stinging from the tear gas fired by Israel. Along with many others, he was picking up tear gas canisters fired by Israel’s military and throwing them back at the soldiers.
“I’m here to show the world that we refuse to put our holy city [Jerusalem] on the negotiating table,” he said. “No one but Palestinians can make decisions related to Jerusalem.”
Israel’s use of tear gas – a chemical weapon – was examined in a study recently published by the University of California, Berkeley. It found that the amount of tear gas to which Palestinians are exposed is “likely beyond the level that has been found elsewhere around the globe.”
Although the study focused on the Bethlehem area of the occupied West Bank, it is also relevant to the use of tear gas in Gaza. People exposed to tear gas here have suffered similar symptoms to those noted in the study.
Ashraf al-Qedra, a spokesperson for the health ministry in Gaza, said that around 60 percent of people injured during recent protests had symptoms related to tear gas inhalation. They included severe coughing, respiratory problems and accelerated heart rates.
Many people in Gaza also believe that Israel is deliberately shooting at protesters so that they will sustain major injuries or even die – eight Palestinians were killed during demonstrations on the Gaza-Israel boundary in December.
Life goes on
About 40 percent of injuries by live fire during the recent protests in Gaza were in the head and upper body, according to al-Qedra.
Sharif Shalash, 28, died on 23 December after being injured in protests a few days earlier. He had been shot in the stomach by the Israeli military.
Sharif had confronted the Israeli military directly on a number of occasions. He was “an expert on the border area [with Israel],” said his friend Ahmad Hassaballah. During protests, Sharif had organized young people into groups and advised them about how to throw burning tires and other objects towards Israeli troops. He had also tried to cut holes in the Israeli fence.
His final wish, according to Hassaballah, was that he be shrouded in a Palestinian flag when he was buried.
I sought to speak with Sharif’s wife Yasmin.
Yet when I arrived at her home, a woman came out and apologized on Yasmin’s behalf. “She is too tired,” the woman said. “She has just come back from the hospital and we have just learned that she is pregnant.”
It was a powerful reminder of how life continues despite all the pain caused by the Israeli occupiers and their supporters in Washington.
Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a journalist from Gaza.