Nawal Abu Hajeela sits in front of framed posters of her sons on the wall of her living room in the Shujayea neighbourhood in the Gaza Strip [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]
Four framed pictures of four men hang on the wall in the middle of Nawal Abu Hajeela’s living room in the Shujayea neighbourhood in the Gaza Strip.
Three are marked with the words “the heroic martyr” before their names.
“Those are my sons who were killed,” Nawal, also known as Umm Iyad, told Al Jazeera.
Her oldest son, Iyad, was 41 years old and father to four children when he died after a battle with cancer a year ago.
Her three other sons were killed in attacks or armed operations against Israel.
“This is Adham, 21, who was a member of the Qassam Brigades [the military wing of the Hamas movement] and was killed in an operation attack against Israeli soldiers in December 2004,” Umm Iyad said, pointing at his photo.
“This is Ziad, 26, who was part of the Qassam’s night patrol and was killed in 2007 in an Israeli shelling. I was preparing for his engagement back then.
“The biggest photograph is of Mohammed, 31, who was killed last week [April 12] in an Israeli shelling at the Gaza border.
“Even though I knew that my sons had determined their paths in resistance, their loss is still difficult.”
As a tribute to her sons, 58-year-old Umm Iyad is known locally as the “Khansaa of Gaza”, after a seventh century female Arab poet whose four sons were killed in the Battle of Qadisiyah.
“It’s a great honour to be named the Khansaa of Gaza,” Umm Iyad said, and repeated what the Arab Khansaa said when she received the news of her sons’ death: “Praise be to Allah who honoured me with their martyrdom.”
“I have hope that God will reunite me with them in heaven.”
Umm Iyad has had a heavy load to bear from a young age.
She was married at the age of 15 and had 10 sons and one daughter whom she largely raised alone.
“When my children were young, my husband worked as a labourer in Israel all day, which added more to my burden,” she said.
After 22 years of marriage, Umm Iyad got divorced. She moved with her 11 children into a rented apartment in Shujayea.
“That was the hardest chapter of my life,” she recalled.
“In addition to raising my children alone, I had to overcome a lot of the social challenges that society puts in front of a single, divorced mother.”
Life after divorce
With the help of her two older sons and her family, Umm Iyad managed to get by.
Despite the divorce, she said, she was careful not to let that affect her children’s relationship with their father, who had remarried.
“My sons pay their respects to their father and they always visit him, especially Mohammed. His father was devastated when he learned of his death,” Umm Iyad said.
She continued: “I had dreamed of sending my children to university in order for them to continue their higher education, but our harsh living conditions didn’t allow for that to happen.
“My older sons work as bricklayers to make ends meet, and my oldest, Iyad, worked as a government employee with the Palestinian Authority before he passed away.”
|Nawal Abu Hajeela with her family in Gaza’s Shujayea area [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]|
Umm Iyad, a member of the social committee in her local mosque, is fiercely patriotic.
“I raised my children to love their homeland. I always take part in any activity, demonstration or event related to Palestine,” she said.
She participated in the first two Fridays of the mass demonstrations that were launched on March 30, calling for Palestinian refugees’ right of return.
‘Always on my mind’
Umm Iyad said she supported her sons Adham, Ziad and Mohammed on the path they chose “to resist against Israel” in spite of, as she admitted, the difficulty of reconciling her mother’s instinct with what the sacrifices she says her children had to make for their homeland.
News of her most recent loss, the death of Mohammed, came early on April 12, as an Israeli air raid targeted a group of Qassam members.
Mohammad, who was among the group, succumbed to his wounds in Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital.
“Even though I was expecting to hear this news one day, I still feared his loss,” Umm Iyad said.
“Mohammed dedicated his life to resistance and believed in the right to restore his stolen homeland. He has been injured three times, and participated in three wars, especially against the 2014 Israeli offensive.”
Mohammed left behind five children. The eldest, Asem, is only six years old.
“I’m a grandmother to 29 children, nine of whom are orphans. Their future after the death of their fathers is my greatest concern now,” Umm Iyad said.
Umm Iyad now lives with her unmarried sons Raed and Karam; her other four sons live with their families nearby.
Fighting to hold back tears as she looked at the photos of her four deceased sons, Umm Iyad said: “They are always on my mind, and I miss them every minute.
“I always pray to see them again in my dreams,” she said.