When Aed Abu Amro held a Palestinian flag aloft during one of the Great March of Return protests last year on the boundary between Gaza and Israel, the last thought on his mind was that he would become an internet sensation.
But a picture of the shirtless Aed, slingshot and flag in hand and enveloped by the smoke from tear gas, went viral almost instantly.
It sparked comparisons with a painting from the European Romantic period and made him an instant icon of the Palestinian resistance.
The photo was taken on 22 October by Mustafa Hassouna of the Turkish Anadolu press agency. And it so happened that in composition, lighting and motif, the picture closely resembles “Liberty Leading the People,” a painting by the French painter Eugène Delacroix.
That the subject of the 1830 painting was the struggle for liberty during the revolution in France the same year – with liberty represented by a woman, bare-chested, carrying a French flag – only added to the poignancy of Hassouna’s photo.
For Aed, the global reaction to the photo was an eye-opener.
“I was amazed by how quickly the photo spread,” Aed told The Electronic Intifada in a recent interview.
The comparisons to Delacroix’s painting made him proud, he said, and have encouraged him to carry on, even if inadvertently becoming an icon has also come with a responsibility.
“People consider the photo a symbol of the resistance. This has made me determined to remain steadfast and stay among those rejecting the Israeli blockade. It’s great to become a symbol, but the occupation is still imposing its siege.”
The cost of protest
Aed, 20, had been a regular at the Great March of Return protests, spurred originally, he said, by the December 2017 announcement by Donald Trump, the US president, that he would move the US embassy to Jerusalem.
He remembers watching Al Jazeera with his father, Jamal Sadi Abu Amro, that day. After the announcement was made, his father had turned to him and said: “Nothing has been left to us anymore… The Palestinian cause is lost.”
So when the Great March of Return protests started a year ago, Aed was there.
“I felt,” Aed said, “that if nothing else, our revolution of the youth could express our rejection of Trump’s announcement.”
He made new friends at the protests, friendships forged in tear gas and under a hail of bullets.
But his activism also came at a cost. He has been hit several times by tear gas grenades, friends have been wounded and one, Ahmad Yaghi, 25, was killed last August.
On 5 November 2018, a bullet strafed Aed’s left leg at a coastal protest against the naval blockade, leaving him wounded but undeterred. He returned to the Great March of Return protests within days.
Then on 23 November back at the fence east of Gaza City, Aed was shot again, this time in his right leg, and this time more seriously.
Doctors told him he had been struck by a so-called butterfly bullet, a projectile that opens up on impact for maximum effect.
The bullet caused severe damage to his knee and other bones in his leg, leaving him unable to move his toes and in need of constant pain medication.
It forced him to stop going to the protests.
It also forced him to stop going to the gym.
The perfect body
The gym was Aed’s escape and his hobby. One of six siblings, five of whom still live at home in the al-Zaytoun neighborhood of Gaza City, he has devoted many hours to building his physique and getting away from his family’s crowded home.
Aed competed successfully in competitions in the 55 kg (121 lb) bodybuilding weight category in local gyms, most recently in July 2018.
“I was the best bodybuilder in the East Gaza region at 55 kg. I was preparing myself for the Gaza Strip bodybuilding championship on 26 November. But then I was wounded.”
The injury has been extensive. The white stabilizers on his leg are due to come off at any time now, but he still needs surgery on tendons in his toes, as well as a knee operation.
When he is recovered, he said, he wants to return to the protests. But his father is ambivalent.
“I can’t prevent Aed from going to the protests,” Jamal, 48, told The Electronic Intifada. “He is badly affected by the siege and the poverty, he wants to express his anger at the repression he has suffered since birth in our occupied society.”
Jamal, who is unemployed and relies on the wages his five sons occasionally bring back from jobs in factories or elsewhere, said he hoped Aed – who used to work in a cigarette stall not far from home – would return to his sport.
“I believe sport can send a message to the world, that Aed can have an impact if he is a distinguished athlete representing Palestine in foreign competitions.”
For now, however, the focus is on the necessities. For months, Jamal said, he has been trying to secure painkillers, antibiotics and antibacterial soap for Aed, scarce commodities in Gaza, where all imports are under severe Israeli restrictions.
He has had to borrow money to buy medicine, he said, and has reached out to various charities to help him secure more.
A life under occupation
Aed has known only occupation, blockade and war. Born in 1999, he lived through the second intifada and three all-out Israeli military assaults on Gaza, as well as the 12-year Israeli-enforced blockade that has left Gaza on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.
He was 15 during the last war on Gaza in 2014. The family had to evacuate their home after a number of houses near them were bombed. When they returned, he learned that his friend and contemporary Fayez Yasin had been killed.
“I used to ask my dad when I was young: ‘Why do they kill children and women? Why do their airplanes launch rockets instead of flying as normal planes?’” Aed told The Electronic Intifada. “I didn’t imagine that when I grew up I would still live with occupation, blockade and the theft of Palestinian land.”
He is puzzled too by what he read in Israeli papers, especially in the comment sections under articles, after his photo went viral.
“People called me a terrorist! I can’t remember a day when we didn’t have an electricity blackout. I’ve watched dozens of people killed, including friends. I’ve seen whole neighborhoods destroyed. And people called me a terrorist!”
These days, Aed spends most of his time with two close friends, Mahmoud Abu Marsa and Ahmad Bahlool, both 20, and like Aed unemployed. All are desperate for a better life.
“I am proud of him,” Abu Marsa told The Electronic Intifada. “He represents the youth of Gaza, all of us who grew up with wars and a siege that has deprived us of any decent opportunities.”
He is missed at the protests, Abu Marsa said. Bahlool said Aed was always the strongest and boldest, willing and able to retrieve and carry the wounded to safety.
Bahlool is convinced that Aed was deliberately targeted after the photo went viral.
“The occupation wanted to say: ‘You aren’t a hero.’ But what people don’t see is that behind this photo, Aed is just a 20-year-old who is fed up with waiting. We love life. We want to live a decent life.”
Amjad Ayman Yaghi is a journalist based in Gaza.