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.
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 onto 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.
It was not the first public death in the family. A large poster in the family living room shows Mariam Ghandour’s uncle, Ammar, brandishing a rifle and wearing a black headband. A member of Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a militant group affiliated with Fatah, he died battling Israeli soldiers in 2006.
Another uncle, Ibrahim, died in 2001 as he threw stones at Israeli soldiers. He was 15 at the time. This time, though, there were competing narratives.
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 Defense 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, Lt 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 on Wednesday, in a statement saying only that the Layla’s story was “Hamas propaganda”.
Hamas officials have made little secret of their desire to publicise the case. With little chance that its supporters could deliver on threats to storm the Gaza fence this week, the protests were largely about winning international sympathy. Layla’s story helped.
“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.”
And yet a question mark lingers over the case. 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. “PDAs can be common, and most are small and insignificant.”
Whatever the truth, the competing camps have used the baby’s death to prosecute broader arguments. For some, it is a measure of Palestinian desperation at a time when they feel abandoned by erstwhile Arab supporters, and by the US government.
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.” – New York Times