It had been a month since Ala Abu Saleh, 23, last set foot in her brother Hani’s room.
When she finally did – during September – it brought memories flooding back. As she started organizing his clothes in a modest closet, she recalled the last moments she spent with him, moments that did not give any hint as to what was to follow.
Hani, a member of the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, was killed on 1 August in a shootout with Israeli troops.
But the Brigades say they had no hand in an operation that left three Israeli soldiers wounded and his family has put his actions down to an attempt at personal vengeance.
Revenge for a slain brother. Revenge, perhaps, for a future that was stolen from him.
Over the next days a series of similar operations – ones that were undertaken by individuals acting alone and for a mixture of political and personal reasons – took place near or on the boundary with Israel.
On 10 August, four Palestinians were killed when they crossed the boundary with Israel in the southern Gaza Strip and engaged Israeli soldiers.
On the morning of the next day, Marwan Nasser was killed when he too tried to cross the boundary with Israel, this time from the northern Gaza Strip near Beit Hanoun.
Then, on 17 August, three more young men were killed east of Beit Lahiya when Israeli forces opened fire from the air as they approached the boundary there.
In none of these operations did any faction claim responsibility, which is unusual. And while individual operations are not new, their frequency and intensity in August were unprecedented.
Thabit al-Amour, a political analyst and pundit on Palestine Today TV, said Gaza’s youth were simply disillusioned. Their lives are traps, their futures bleak.
“There have been no tangible or fundamental changes to their lives after truce agreements with Israel,” al-Amour told The Electronic Intifada. “This is their way to protest.”
The Great March of Return protests, he said, have served to both enflame and embolden people. Enflame, because of the number of casualties. Embolden, because people have “seen how to penetrate” security at the boundary.
The weekly demonstrations – for refugees’ right of return and against Israel’s blockade on Gaza – have been taking place for a year and a half and have been met with overwhelming and often lethal Israeli force.
It is almost certainly the case that all of those who took part in these latest operations had also participated in the Great March of Return protests.
A total of six people took part in the 17 August incident that killed three of them and the Electronic Intifada interviewed one of the survivors.
They only had one weapon between them, the man said, a Kalashnikov. But when they reached the boundary with Israel, an Israeli artillery unit fired a missile at them from some 60 meters away.
The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he had been about 20 metres away from his friends when the exchange of fire with Israeli soldiers began. He retreated, he said, before an Israeli plane swooped down to attack.
“We knew that we might be killed. But we wanted to make a difference. We planned to capture an Israeli soldier, but we were discovered before we could make an attempt.”
The man confirmed that all six in the attack had participated in the Great March of Return protests and most of them had been injured doing so. Their motivation was revenge, he said.
“We wanted to take revenge for all the people who have been injured or killed in the Great March of Return.”
It was, also, he added, a result of their disillusionment with their own leaders and in diplomacy.
“We’ve lost any belief that we can reach a political solution with Israel. If we want our rights, we must take them by force.”
Abdel Jawad al-Taramsy, the older brother of Muhammad, one of the three killed that day, said his brother had been wounded seven times during the demonstrations.
“I did my best to stop Muhammad from going back to the protests,” said Abdel Jawad, 32. He found him a job in a stone quarry, he said, and Muhammad, six years his junior, was taking home a decent wage by Gaza standards.
But even after his most serious injury, a gunshot wound to the leg that left him in a wheelchair for a while, he insisted on going back to the demonstrations.
“He always insisted telling me that ‘the march and my friends needs me,’” Abdel Jawad said.
One week before he was killed, Muhammad offered to donate his kidney to his mother Suad al-Shabrawy, 62, who suffers a kidney disease. She refused.
“For two years, Muhammad would accompany me twice a week to hospital for treatment,” Suad told The Electronic Intifada. “Now I go alone.”
Ala remembers clearly her brother’s last night with the family. Hani had prepared dinner for his eight relatives and then put on his military uniform.
He was a member of the Qassam Brigades, and this night he was on guard duty near the boundary by Khan Younis, in Gaza’s south.
“After he had put on his uniform, he called me to his room and gave me a scarf made with black embroidery,” Ala remembered. “I didn’t feel there was anything strange and it never entered my mind that this would be our last moment together.”
She did, however, fear the worst when – a while later – she heard shooting in the distance.
“I heard the shooting. I felt a pain. I knew something bad was going to happen,” Ala told The Electronic Intifada.
Hani had somehow taken up a position on the boundary with Israel, cutting a hole in a barbed wire section of that demarcation and planted himself behind a sand embankment normally used by Israeli snipers against demonstrators in the Great March of Return.
He waited, and when an Israeli unit came close he opened fire. He wounded three soldiers, including one officer, before being killed.
Sources in the Qassam Brigades told The Electronic Intifada that the operation had been entirely planned and executed by Hani with no coordination from either the Brigades or other individuals.
That too is the assessment of Israeli military intelligence.
For its part, the family is in no doubt that Hani was acting out of revenge.
Fadi Abu Saleh, Hani’s older brother, had been killed on 14 May 2018 while participating in the Great March of Return. The family say he was shot by snipers. Fadi – whose name has also been reported as Fadi Abu Salmi – had previously lost both legs in an Israeli bomb attack during 2008.
“Hani loved life. He wanted to be a businessman,” Ala said. “But after Fadi was killed he spent a lot of time on his own in his room.”
Intisar Abu Saleh, Hani and Ala’s mother, said she too had been deeply concerned about her son. He had often told her Israel would never be held accountable for his brother’s death, she said.
“I guess he decided to seek vengeance himself,” Intisar told The Electronic Intifada. “I was searching for a bride for him to stop him doing this. But I failed.”
Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a journalist from Gaza.