Huda Ali Ghalia is a young woman on a mission.
On 26 January, the 25-year-old earned her law diploma, the equivalent of taking the bar. She is now able to practice law in Gaza where she is from and where, a year ago, she was similarly qualified in sharia law.
Now she intends to secure a scholarship to study abroad for a degree in public law in order to familiarize herself with international humanitarian law.
But Huda is, even by Gaza’s standards, no ordinary ambitious young person.
Fourteen years ago, on 9 June 2006, Huda’s was the face of Gaza’s pain. Days shy of her 12th birthday, it was her anguished expression – as she threw herself in the sand crying out for her father, dead on a Gaza beach along with six other family members after an Israeli shelling – that became the symbol of everything that is wrong in Palestine and with a world that simply doesn’t care.
The footage was as heartbreaking as the aftermath was tawdry. Israel disputed accounts of the massacre that laid the blame on its military, insisting instead that Hamas mines had been the real cause of the fatal explosion.
It also refused an international investigation.
Israel’s version of events has been widely dismissed. Human Rights Watch called it the least likely of three possible scenarios.
But no justice has been granted the surviving members of the Ghalia family, nor has anyone been held accountable.
This is partly what motivates Huda today.
“I want to reactivate my family’s case,” Huda told The Electronic Intifada. “There must be justice.”
But it’s not just personal. The more she studied law, she said, the more she has found it remarkable how Israel has never been held accountable for its crimes. She wants, she said, to represent all Palestinians who have suffered from Israel’s oppression.
The “girl of the sea”
To many people she will always be that girl on the beach. And she will never escape the memories of that day. She remembers how her father, a farmer, had harvested eggplants and tomatoes on the family’s small parcel of land, just before they went out.
“We went home to bring food and clothes to spend the rest of the day on the beach. It was afternoon, and the beach was crowded.”
She remembers how the first artillery shells landed, dispersing the crowds and making everyone rush to find cars to take them away.
She remembers more shelling, this time flinging her to the ground, before she got up to look for her family.
She remembers finding them.
“I had never seen anyone dead before. We didn’t have TV at home so I hadn’t even seen this on film.”
Even Israel’s obfuscations couldn’t prevent the outrage that followed, once footage capturing the moment she first saw her slain father came out.
But it also made her a reluctant and unready focus of attention. Cameras and journalists waited outside her uncle’s house – where she stayed for months after – as they sought to hear from and about her.
Huda decided to distance herself from other children and adults. She didn’t seek friends.
Her grades suffered during her years at the Ibad Ur-Rahman Exemplary School. She attended this private school through a scholarship that catered to her special needs following the trauma she incurred from the horrific attack on the beach.
She hated to be known as the “girl of the sea” who screamed on TV after finding her father murdered by the Israeli military.
However, at 15, the counseling she received seemed to have some effect. Her academic results improved, and she finished the high school tawjihi exam with a commendable average of 71.9 percent in 2012.
A life of brutality
Despite her gradual improvement and her graduation now, Huda’s scars – along with those of everyone else in Gaza – have never really been given a chance to heal.
All of Gaza’s population, in the words of the late Eyad al-Sarraj, former head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, suffers acute post-traumatic stress disorder without ever getting to the post bit.
Since the massacre on the beach, Huda has had to survive three all-out Israeli military assaults on Gaza – in 2008-09, 2012 and 2014 – all of which brought new pain and reopened old wounds.
The first war resulted in the death of her brother-in-law, Annan, who was 26. He had the misfortune of being close to a police station in Jabaliya. Civilian police stations were among the primary targets in the first moments of that war. Her sister, Amani, 24, who was with her husband at the time, suffered serious injuries to which she would succumb in March 2009.
The 2014 war saw her relive her own trauma through the eyes of others, as whole families were slaughtered in an assault that took more than 2,200 lives of which some 1,500 were civilians.
These aggressions did not allow her respite from her own trauma. But they did redouble her resolve to educate herself and pursue justice.
“Law taught me that every criminal should be held accountable for his crimes,” Huda told The Electronic Intifada. “To see how the Israeli military is an exception was a shock to me.”
According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, a suit could not be pursued against the Israeli military in her own family’s case in Israeli courts. In 2007, Israel designated the Gaza Strip as a hostile region, making it impossible for Palestinians from Gaza to enter Israel to file legal cases, or Israeli lawyers to go the other way to meet clients, thus undermining a procedure that was already littered with obstacles.
As a result, Huda said, “the case file at the Israeli judiciary was suspended.”
The PCHR lawyer who was handling the Ghalia case, Mohammed al-Alami, was nevertheless impressed enough with Huda’s determination that he eventually took her on as a trainee after her graduation from law school in 2017.
In her graduation speech that summer, she moved a rapt audience with her story and had them on their feet when thanking her mother, Hamdiyeh, for her steadfast support through it all.
“The graduation hall was full of parents smiling and clapping for their daughters. And I was looking at them, and I wished that my father was present, that he could have seen me become a lawyer,” Huda told The Electronic Intifada. “The hardest thing for me, still, is to see his picture.”
In January, with her law diploma earned, Huda moved another step closer to becoming the advocate for Palestinian rights and against the crimes of Israel’s occupation that she hopes to become.
Ola Mousa is an artist and writer from Gaza.