The child who died in Gaza, her fam­ily and the pro­pa­ganda war

Images of gassed baby trig­ger war of words with Is­rael

The Irish Times - - World News - De­clan Walsh in Gaza City

Soon af­ter Omar took the child, she said, a tear-gas can­is­ter fell nearby

Layla Ghan­dour, an eight-month-old girl with sparkling green eyes, was in the arms of her grand­mother when a cloud of tear gas en­gulfed them at the protest in Gaza on Mon­day.

The child in­haled a draft of acrid gas that set off a rasp­ing cough and wa­ter­ing eyes. Hours later she was dead.

The story shot across the globe, pro­vid­ing an emo­tive fo­cus for out­rage at mil­i­tary tac­tics that Is­rael’s crit­ics said were dis­pro­por­tion­ately vi­o­lent.

Yet within hours the fam­ily’s story was be­ing ques­tioned. Doc­tors said Layla had suf­fered from a con­gen­i­tal heart de­fect that, one sug­gested, might have caused her death. Then the Is­raeli mil­i­tary is­sued claims, un­sup­ported by ev­i­dence, that it held in­for­ma­tion that dis­proved the fam­ily’s ac­count.

The con­tro­versy un­der­scored the power of images of chil­dren in the most wrench­ing con­flicts of the Mid­dle East. Pho­to­graphs of Layla’s mother, Mariam, clutch­ing her daugh­ter’s limp body in a Gaza hos­pi­tal ward have be­come a po­tent po­lit­i­cal sym­bol, like those of Alan Kurdi, the Syr­ian in­fant whose body washed up on a Turk­ish beach.

But like many such sym­bols in the Mid­dle East, a small but in­tense tragedy of peo­ple liv­ing chaotic lives in tur­bu­lent times has be­come fod­der for com­pet­ing nar­ra­tives.

The day af­ter Layla died, her fa­ther strode from a cen­turies-old mosque af­ter fu­neral prayers, his daugh­ter’s body wrapped in a Pales­tinian flag and held aloft, as a crowd jog­ging be­hind him chanted slo­gans about Is­raeli blood lust. Of­fi­cials with Ha­mas, the mil­i­tant group that con­trols Gaza, cir­cu­lated a pho­to­graph of the smil­ing child. For the Ghan­dour fam­ily, it was the sec­ond per­sonal dev­as­ta­tion in two years. Two years ago, Mariam Ghan­dour’s first child, Salim, suf­fo­cated af­ter a can­dle top­pled over in their bed­room dur­ing one of Gaza’s fre­quent power fail­ures. The flames burned Ghan­dour and killed her son, who was just 26 days old.

The pres­sures of life in Gaza – a poverty-stricken, crowded en­clave that has been un­der an Is­raeli block­ade for the past 11 years – also con­trib­uted to the swirl of events, and de­ci­sions, that swept the in­fant girl to the front line of Mon­day’s protest.

Border fence

Layla was doz­ing in their house in a ragged cor­ner of Gaza City when a call went up: A bus was wait­ing, out­side a nearby mosque, to take res­i­dents to the border fence, where the protest was rag­ing. Her 12-year-old un­cle, Am­mar, bun­dled her up in his arms and car­ried her out the door.

The boy as­sumed that Layla’s mother was al­ready on the bus. In fact, she was in an­other part of the house, suf­fer­ing from a toothache. Still, Layla was hardly the only in­fant at the protest. En­tire fam­i­lies had come along, some snack­ing on ice cream or sand­wiches, as the protests raged hun­dreds of yards away. In the late af­ter­noon, Layla, in a tent with her aunts, started to wail. Am­mar grabbed his niece for a sec­ond time and, he said, pushed for­ward into the protest in search of her grand­mother, Heyam Omar, who was stand­ing in a crowd un­der a pall of black smoke, shout­ing at Is­raeli sol­diers across the fence.

Soon af­ter Omar took the child, she said, a tear-gas can­is­ter fell nearby. She fran­ti­cally wiped the child’s face with wa­ter and gave her juice to drink. But an hour later, af­ter they reached the fam­ily home, Layla ap­peared to have stopped breath­ing.

When they arrived at a hos­pi­tal at 6.34pm, doc­tors pro­nounced the child dead. “Her limbs were cold and blue,” reads a hos­pi­tal re­port. Layla’s mother crumpled on to the hos­pi­tal bed and wept over her daugh­ter.

“I felt like my heart had been at­tacked,” she said.

The rules of grief in Gaza, where pri­vate pain is of­ten pa­raded for po­lit­i­cal causes, kicked in. The next morn­ing the sec­u­lar Fatah move­ment erected a fu­neral tent out­side the fam­ily’s home, and hung a ban­ner with a photo of the in­fant be­side an im­age of Mah­moud Ab­bas, pres­i­dent of the Pales­tinian Author­ity.The Ghan­dour fam­ily ac­knowl­edged that Layla suf­fered from patent duc­tus ar­te­rio­sus, a con­gen­i­tal heart dis­ease com­monly de­scribed as a hole in the heart. An un­named doc­tor in Gaza told the As­so­ci­ated Press that he be­lieved that a heart ail­ment, not Is­raeli tear gas, was the cause of Layla’s death.

The Is­rael Defence Forces seized on the un­cer­tainty. Its sol­diers have come un­der mount­ing crit­i­cism since Mon­day, when they killed 60 peo­ple and wounded hun­dreds, prompt­ing hor­ror abroad and soul-search­ing in­side Is­rael about the tac­tics of its mil­i­tary.

“Un­for­tu­nately, some of the over­whelm­ing pictures have been by a knock­out,” a mil­i­tary spokesman, Lieut Col Jonathan Con­ri­cus, said in a con­fer­ence call with a Jewish or­gan­i­sa­tion in the United States on Tues­day, the news­pa­per Haaretz re­ported.

“The graphic pictures from the Pales­tinian side and the amount of ca­su­al­ties have done us a tremen­dous dis­ser­vice. This has made it very dif­fi­cult to tell our story.”

On Tues­day, an Is­raeli mil­i­tary spokesman said on Twit­ter that the army had ob­tained “mul­ti­ple ac­counts that raise doubts” about the baby’s death. But the army did not re­spond to re­quests for copies of those ac­counts yes­ter­day, in a state­ment say­ing only that Layla’s story was “Ha­mas pro­pa­ganda”. Ha­mas of­fi­cials have made lit­tle se­cret of their de­sire to pub­li­cise the case.

“The Is­raelis have noth­ing of sub­stance to dam­age the Pales­tinian nar­ra­tive, so they try to dis­rupt it with ran­dom state­ments about Layla,” said Ashraf al-Qidra, a spokesman for the min­istry of health in Gaza, which tal­lies ca­su­alty fig­ure and seeks to rally pub­lic­ity around high-pro­file deaths. “They want to con­fuse in­ter­na­tional opin­ion.”

Au­topsy

A foren­sic doc­tor is cur­rently con­duct­ing an au­topsy on Layla, al-Qidra said. Until the doc­tor makes his de­ter­mi­na­tion, no death cer­tifi­cate will be is­sued. “All the signs in­di­cate she was ex­posed to gas in­hala­tion,” he said. “But we don’t know for sure.”

Dr Ger­ald Ross Marx, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in pae­di­atrics at the Har­vard school of medicine, said it was doubt­ful that patent duc­tus ar­te­rio­sus was solely re­spon­si­ble for her death. “It would not be im­pos­si­ble, but very un­likely she would have died sud­denly,” he said.

What­ever the truth, the com­pet­ing camps have used the baby’s death to pros­e­cute broader ar­gu­ments. The pro-Is­raeli com­men­ta­tor Alan Der­showitz has at­tacked what he terms Ha­mas’s “dead baby strat­egy” of putting civil­ians in harm’s way as a means of at­tract­ing sym­pa­thy for the Pales­tinian cause. For Layla’s fam­ily, there is only pain, frus­tra­tion and the mem­ory of their 8-month-old daugh­ter.

“No­body works here. No­body can leave. We have suf­fered nu­mer­ous wars,” said her fa­ther, An­war al-Ghan­dour, who spurned the protests on Mon­day.

“Our prob­lem is Fatah, our prob­lem is Ha­mas, and our prob­lem is the Is­raelis. May God send rock­ets to scat­ter them.”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The mother of Layla Ghan­dour, a Pales­tinian baby who died dur­ing vi­o­lence in Gaza, holds her at the morgue in Gaza City.

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