On Friday afternoon, as Israeli soldiers from the other side of the fence were firing tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition, Yaser Abu al-Naja and a few friends took cover behind a waste container away from the front lines of a protest in the Gaza Strip.
As Yaser briefly peeked out from behind the bin, an explosive bullet hit him in the head. His skull was shattered, resulting a bloody pulp in one side, eye-witnesses said.
Yaser was 11 years old.
His killing on Friday made him the 16th Palestinian child to be shot dead by Israeli forces since the launch on March 30 of the Great March of Return protests calling for the right of refugees and their descendants to return to the homes and lands from which they were violently expelled from in 1948.
A few hours later, at sundown, Yaser’s mother Samah Abu al-Naja was browsing through Facebook on her mobile phone when she came upon a photo of an “unidentified boy” with his head blurred and bloodied clothes.
“His face was not showing but I recognised him as my son from the clothes he was wearing,” the 30-year-old told Al Jazeera from her home east of Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip.
“My neighbour and one of my daughters were sitting with me,” she added. “I turned to them with the phone in my hand and said: ‘this is my son.'”
For Samah, the horror of certainty instantly gave way to a sense of shock. As the young mother headed to the European Hospital, where Yaser’s body was held, she struggled to wrap her mind around the fact that her first-born child had been shot dead.
“I never expected my son to be killed,” she wept. “I knew he went every Friday to attend the protests, but he was driven by curiosity and went mostly to watch other protesters with his group of his friends.”
‘Ray of sunlight’
Yaser was born in 2006, one year before the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on the Gaza Strip was imposed.
He grew up through three Israeli offensives which devastated the Hamas-run enclave. His family’s house was destroyed twice during his short lifetime – once in 2011 and again in 2014 – leaving him and his relatives to seek temporary shelter with other families.
Those who knew Yaser, whose funeral was held on Saturday, described him as a well-mannered, obedient and clever boy whole loved sports and counted swimming, horseback riding and football as his favourite hobbies.
The night before he was killed, he was watching the football World Cup with his friends.
“He would help take care of his younger siblings,” his mother said. “He was very sociable and loved playing outside with his friends.”
The first boy in the family, Yaser’s birth was a major source of happiness for his parents and his father’s first wife, Naeema.
Naeema had nine girls before she suggested to her husband, Amjad Abu al-Najar, over a decade ago to marry a younger woman in order to conceive a coveted male heir.
When Yaser was born, the 48-year-old treated him like her own son.
|Relatives of the 11-year-old mourn during his funeral in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip [Khalil Hamra/The Associated Press]|
“He was always around in my house like a ray of sunlight,” Naeema said. “His sisters, my daughters, were very attached to him and loved him greatly. We are inconsolable at his death.”
Naeema said Yaser’s killing was personal to get back at his father, who is a leader with Hamas’ military wing al-Qassam Brigades.
“The Israelis only understand one language,” she said. “Whether it is armed resistance or popular unarmed protests, their response is always to kill.”
Samah concurred. “A bullet to the head? This was deliberate,” she murmured.
Nearby, the face of the father, Amjad, was a frozen image of shock, despite telling Al Jazeera that his son was no different from the other Palestinian children who were targeted by Israeli forces.
“The way he was shot … I can never forget his fragmented skull,” he said. “The targeting of civilians by Israeli soldiers is a mass violation, but they only get bolder with each consecutive Friday protest.”
In a statement of Friday, the Israeli army said soldiers responded with “riot dispersal means” and “resorted to live fire” when those failed.
The statement added that it would investigate the death of Yaser and that legal action could be taken, if appropriate.
Protests a ‘national achievement’
Ashraf al-Qidra, the Palestinian ministry of health spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that the ages of the 16 children killed at the Friday protests were between 10-17 years old.
“The number of children wounded is 2,250, including two cases who had to have their legs amputated,” he said.
At Friday’s protest, 24-year-old Muhammad al-Hamaydeh from Rafah was also killed. At least 415 were injured, including three medics and 11 children.
“In total, 134 Palestinians have been killed since March 30 and 15,200 injured,” said al-Qidra.
The idea of a popular, unarmed protest movement in the areas east of the Gaza Strip was conceived by Ahmad Abu Artema, and was enthusiastically received by a majority of people across all walks of life, including the political parties.
Five encampments were set up from the Israel fence along the strip, symbolising the right of return for many Palestinians in Gaza, where at least 70 percent are refugees whose grandparents were forcibly driven out from lands a few kilometres from the fence.
|Thousands attended the funeral of Yaser Abu al-Naja on Saturday [Anadolu]|
Yet after almost four months of weekly Friday protests, the number of participants has dropped, and Israel has shown no inclination to ameliorate the situation by loosening the screws of the crippling blockade – let alone lift it altogether.
“I don’t measure the success of the protests by the number of people participating,” Abu Artema told Al Jazeera.
“Of course the numbers are lower now than when we first started, but the accomplishment is that this has become a crystalised reality, where people now think of Fridays as the day of protests, as the weekly popular confrontation with the Israeli occupation.”
Abu Artema admitted that in recent weeks, especially after May 14 when 62 people were killed, the number of protesters had decreased.
“The committee in charge of organising protests began to review the movement in its current state and form, which had begun to take on a different kind of face that left many people dissatisfied, such as staying clear of the factional influence and return to its popular character,” he said.
Abu Artema said the movement had to be strengthened by “diversifying its popular activities”.
“We need to assess the protest movement in a way that can resonate with public and global opinion, since the silence from the international community is what encourages Israel to continue targeting thousands of us at the fence,” he said.
The general principle is that the protests must continue, he added.
“No doubt that after 14 Fridays, the protests are a national achievement, and has carved out an unparalleled path in terms of unarmed resistance,” he said.
Not the last child to be killed
For Samah, who still still supports the movement, the protests enabled people to call for their basic rights.
“But the Israeli response had led to death, amputations and serious injuries,” she said.
“We have endured massive losses, such as the loss of a parent, or the loss of a child. It’s hard for me to bear this loss now that I’ve experienced it … it is devastating.”
“Yaser won’t be the last child killed,” Naeema added. “Every Friday there is a new story of a child or young woman or young man who was killed.”
“All of this serves as no deterrent to the Israelis,” she said.
“This in turn further encourages people in Gaza to demonstrate and to express themselves against the injustices of their reality in these weekly protests.”