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After her 14-year-old daughter was shot dead on Gaza border, this mother hopes her death will not be in vain

The teenager wanted to be a martyr, so she would be less of a burden on her struggling family

Donald Macintyre
Meghazi, Gaza Strip
Tuesday 15 May 2018 21:29 BST
Palestinians run to take cover as an Israeli drone fires tear gas grenades east of Gaza City
Palestinians run to take cover as an Israeli drone fires tear gas grenades east of Gaza City (AFP)

If Reem Abu Ermana had her way, her 14-year-old daughter Wissal would never have made her fateful journey to the Israeli border at the Bureij refugee camp on Monday.

But she was overwhelmed by Wissal’s persuasive powers.

“First I locked the door and told her not to go,” she explains. “I said, ‘Why don’t you go on Tuesday instead?’” But Wissal had insisted that “this is the day” and she eventually let her go at around 9am, accompanied by her 11-year-old brother Mohammed.

It had been Mohammed who had returned home at around noon to tell his mother that Wissal had been shot in the head by an Israeli sniper’s bullet.

Telephoned by another relative to say that her daughter had only been injured, she rushed to the Al-Aqsa, the main hospital for central Gaza, frantically searching through the wards until someone suggested that she try the morgue, where indeed she found the dead body of her youngest daughter. Scores of Palestinians were killed on Monday, in the worst violence since the last Gaza war, in 2014.

Wissal hadn’t been doing particularly well at school. But she was a deeply affectionate, cheerful girl, her mother says, who loved to look after her much younger nephews – and to tease her older sisters.

Abu Ermana, 43, divorced from her husband of 23 years who has been treated for mental illness – sits straight-backed at her mother’s house in the Meghazi refugee camp surrounded by mourning relatives and neighbours, trying to explain why her daughter had become so preoccupied by the border protests that she had joined them every Friday, carrying a small bag of stones and ferrying water – and sometimes wire-cutters – to the young men on the front line.

Like so many Gazan Palestinians of her generation, Abu Ermana is the granddaughter of refugees who were forced from or fled their homes in the war of 1948.

The family supports not Hamas but – as the yellow flag hanging inside the front door attests – Fatah, which has long wanted a two-state solution to the conflict. They are also desperately poor.

Her ex-husband had not seen their daughter for four years, she says, did not give them money and had even appropriated the family’s monthly food ration from the UN Relief and Works Agency until it granted it to her and her children two months ago.

She lives with her six children – now five – in a single room in Meghazi, often moving within the camp because it is so difficult to pay the rent.

Her 21-year-old son left school without graduating in the hope of supplementing the family income, but has no job.

Wissal, who would often pray and read the Quran, had originally wanted no more than to become a stay at home mother, have children and above all live in a house of her own.

But she was badly affected by her father’s absence, often saying that “he doesn’t want us”, and honouring her much loved maternal grandfather as her “real” father – even though he had died when she was only four.

While attracted by the idea of getting to Jerusalem – which she had never visited – and by the Great March of Return’s mantra of refugees returning to their ancestral homes, she would also repeatedly say, since the protests began on 30 March: “I want to be a martyr,” her mother recalls. She would add that, in death, she would become less of a burden to her mother, and “I will bring honour to the family. If I die in hospital I want to be buried next to the grave of my grandfather.”

Initially, at least, Abu Ermana said she had not taken her seriously, teasing her that while it might be all right for her to be a martyr and go to God, she would have problems, as a big girl for her age, if she was merely injured.

The only time Abu Ermana’s eyes – the only visible feature of her face, covered with a niqab – filled with tears was when she played a recording from her phone of Wissal singing a song she practised every day recently.

It is called “Ommi Janni” – “My mother is paradise”. Annoyed, Abu Ermana once asked her daughter why she kept singing it. Wissal replied that she was rehearsing it “so I can sing it for you on your birthday”.

Abu Ermana said she hadn’t even thought about compensation until someone had mentioned it to her this morning. (Hamas said after the first two protests that it would pay $3,000 (£2,200) to the bereaved families; but it’s not clear whether this will continue. Moreover she had no idea as yet who to apply to or whether any such payment would actually be made to her husband.)

She expressed – perhaps a little cautiously – the hope that the protests, God willing (“inshallah”), would lead to “our getting our rights back”, that God would grant the Palestinians the victory he had “promised” in the war “that is continuing” and that her daughter’s death would not be in vain.

But looking back on the Oslo accords, signed between Yasser Arafat and Yizhak Rabin when Abu Ermana was in her early twenties, she added, sadly: “We had high hopes then that there would be peace and that we would have a better life than this.”

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