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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 July 2018

'Why did you leave me?' Family mourns baby killed by Israeli tear gas

Leila Ghandour was asphyxiated on the enclave's deadliest day since 2014

The mother of eight-month-old Leila Anwar Ghandoor, who died in the hospital on Tuesday morning from tear gas inhalation, hugs her daughter a last time as she is prepared for burial on May 15, 2018 in Gaza City, Gaza. Spencer Platt / Getty
The mother of eight-month-old Leila Anwar Ghandoor, who died in the hospital on Tuesday morning from tear gas inhalation, hugs her daughter a last time as she is prepared for burial on May 15, 2018 in Gaza City, Gaza. Spencer Platt / Getty

In the final minutes spent with his baby girl, Leila, Anwar Ghandour clasped her tiny body to his, crying and speaking to her as if she was still alive.

"Why did you leave me?" the 25-year-old father wailed, draping her in the Palestinian tricolor and red triangle.

It was the news that every parent dreads. Just eight-months-old, Leila died on Monday, asphyxiated by tear gas fired from the Israeli side of the border during mass protests against the United States embassy move to Jerusalem.

Israeli snipers shot and killed 59 protesters, marking the deadliest day here since 2014. But Leila became the 60th victim, and the youngest, by 13 years. While tear gas burns the eyes of adults, it can maim infants.

Leila would die in the arms of her aunt, east of Gaza City, several hundred metres from the Israeli border during the clashes.

Falsteen Al Jamal, 36, told The National: "Israeli soldiers fired a lot of tear gas. I was far away from the fences. I started to run I was so afraid."

Leila turned blue. She was pronounced dead before she had even reached the hospital. "They couldn't save her," said Ms Al Jamal.

A day later, the scene at the Old Gaza Cemetery in the middle of this thronging city was one of sheer grief.

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Ten women surrounded Leila's mother Mariam Abu Ghandour, crying in despair.

Wrapped in black, she sat near a tiny hole where Leila's body will be laid to rest. Male relatives prayed for her soul at a nearby mosque before her father arrived at the burial ground with her in his arms.

The couple lost another baby two years earlier, a boy who choked on his mother’s breast milk. Rocking back and forth, Anwar tells Leila she will see her brother in heaven. "Take care of him. Give him water."

The mother remained in shock at the loss of her child.

"I don't know what to say. My brother took Leila to the border area without telling me. When I found out, I went as quickly as I can. I found her dead in the ambulance. They were trying to save her but they told me she is dead."

A series of decisions would lead to Leila being close to the border, with her 13-year-old uncle taking her there on a bus as he believed other family members were there. Her mother had a dentist appointment. The confluence of events came on a day of bloodshed that Palestinian leaders decried as a "massacre".

Tragedy was not limited to the Ghandour family on Monday. Thousands of mourners poured into funerals across Gaza on Tuesday.

Eyewitness accounts, like those of Leila's aunt, said many were a long distance from the barrier.

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The mourning took place on the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, the day Palestinians say is their day of "catastrophe", when hundreds of thousands of Arabs were expelled from their homes during the founding of Israel in 1948.

The gunfire and tear gas on Monday wounded more than 2,200 Palestinians. Another two were killed by Israeli fire on Tuesday.

Surgeons are overwhelmed by the bloodshed. Marie-Elisabeth Ingres, head of mission for the aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the Palestinian Territories, said the casualties resembled the carnage hospitals witnessed in the seven-week Gaza conflict between Hamas and Israel four years ago.

The aid group’s youngest victim, out of 1,300, was an 8-year-old boy who was shot in the leg. More than 90 per cent of casualties treated by MSF across three hospitals since protests began on March 30 have been shot by live fire to the lower limbs, a tactic used to incapacitate or maim protesters for years, if not life.

"I don't know how we'll be able to manage," she said of the wave of casualties, adding that surgeons are having to decide who has the most serious injuries for the limited operations they can do. "It's not a question of hours and days, but a question of months and years."

International rancour over the Israeli barrage of gunfire on largely unarmed protesters, as aides of US President Donald Trump and Israeli officials celebrated the embassy opening in Jerusalem, continued on Tuesday.

Germany and Belgium said they supported an independent investigation into the killings and Ireland summoned the Israeli envoy. The UN human rights office said Israel had violated international law by using lethal force, calling on the military to arrest anyone who breaches the fence.