Gaza Strip – Nisma Abdelqader still can’t believe her 18-year-old son is dead.
Israeli soldiers shot Bilal al-Ashram, who was completing his last year of high school, in the head while he was participating in protests in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday.
With tears streaming from her swollen eyes, Nisma described her first-born as her “whole world”.
“He was my support system,” she said. Bilal was the eldest of her eight children and held the family together in the absence of her husband, who has been working in Jordan for the past six years.
Nisma said she tried to stop Bilal from participating in the mass protests on Gaza’s eastern border along the highly militarised fence with Israel.
The rallies, which have been ongoing since March 30, call for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to the homes and villages they were forcibly expelled from to create the state of Israel 70 years ago. This ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist militias in 1948 is known as the Nakba – or catastrophe – and is commemorated annually.
While some 750,000 people were forcibly expelled from historical Palestine, many became internal refugees.
About 70 percent of the Gaza Strip’s population of two million are descendants of Palestinians who became refugees in 1948.
They live under a decade-long land, sea and air blockade and cannot leave the Gaza Strip without hard-to-obtain permits from the Israeli military. Leaving through Egypt – their only other option – is restricted to a few days a year when the Rafah border is open.
Since March 30, the Israeli army has killed 111 Palestinians, including an eight-month-old baby girl who died of tear gas suffocation. More than 12,000 have been wounded since then.
A day before he was killed, Bilal wrote on Facebook he was heading to Bir Seb’a, a city in the south of the country that his family was expelled from during the Nakba.
“I was very afraid. He was very excited to participate in the protests. When the protests calmed down on May 15, I was relieved. I thought nothing would happen to him,” his mother said.
“I still can’t believe he’s gone.”
“I’m not against the Great March of Return, but I am against losing our boys and our children. We have a right to return, but at the end of the day, these are our children. They are still in the prime of their lives, and the occupation will never show us mercy.
“What threat did he pose to the Israeli occupation?” Nisma wondered during her son’s funeral in the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip.
Under international humanitarian law, it is illegal for soldiers to use live ammunition in situations that do not constitute an imminent threat to life.
Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch, said Israel had violated international law in its response to the protests.
“In Gaza, where you have soldiers firing live ammunition at many feet away at people separated by a buffer zone who are at most throwing rocks, or even Molotov cocktails as Israel claims, at a long distance, that would not meet the standards of an imminent threat to life,” Shakir told Al Jazeera.
At another funeral in Nuseirat refugee camp, Jalilah Ghrab mourns the killing of her husband, Nasser.
Ghrab said she, her husband, and her 31-year-old son were about 800 metres away from the fence, east of Bureij, when Nasser was shot in the chest.
Five minutes after reaching the hospital, Nasser’s heart stopped beating.
“He really believed in the right of return. He would go to the protests every single day. He even set up a tent for my family and I,” Jalilah told Al Jazeera, adding their family was expelled in 1948 from Isdud, 35km north of Gaza.
Jalilah said she is in disbelief. “Losing him is bitter and excruciating, and hearts are heavy with anger at the Israeli occupation.”
“He was the spirit of our home. He took care of everyone in the house and was a very kind and loving father,” she said, adding that Nasser was extremely close to his six children and seven grandchildren.
“If anything, this has only increased our determination. I’m going to keep going to the tents, and I’m going to take the whole family with me.”