A skinny boy named Ammar, who is 12 but looks much younger, spent Monday playing with his sister’s 10-month-old daughter, Layla, at the cramped apartment where they both lived in the Gaza Strip.
When the blue-eyed infant seemed hungry, he shared a piece of flatbread with her.
His sister, he figured, was with other family members at the massive Palestinian protests demanding a right to return to their ancestral homeland.
He decided to go find them.
He carried Layla to a bus that was leaving from a nearby mosque for the encampment where the family had been stationing itself along the eastern border of Gaza during the weeks of demonstrations.
When Ammar Rezeq reached the camp, it was teeming with thousands of people, many of them threatening to storm security barriers and swarm into Israel. Israeli forces held them back with barrages of gunfire and tear gas. He made his way toward a security barrier, where his relatives usually gathered.
Suddenly he was surrounded by clouds of acrid white smoke. His niece began to cough.
“I put a scarf on my mouth and was trying to find my family,” Ammar recalled.
Finally, he found his mother and one of Layla’s aunts. They were shocked to see him appear through the haze, with the infant in his arms. The baby’s mother had never gone to the protests that day and stayed home to take a nap, they said.
The aunt took the baby from Ammar, and the three of them started running toward the bus. The girl’s hands were turning blue.
They thought she had fallen asleep on the bus, but when she wouldn’t wake up, they persuaded the driver to take them to a hospital.
Ammar watched as doctors desperately tried to revive the infant.
“I thought she would wake up,” he said, tears welling in his eyes.
Ammar Rezeq, 12, grieves for his niece Layla Ghandour, whose name was added to a list of martyrs released by the Gaza Healthy Ministry. Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times
By Tuesday, Layla Ghandour had made international news as a symbol of the Palestinian cause. The Gaza Health Ministry added her name to a list of protest martyrs — the youngest of more than 60 people who died on the bloodiest day of weeks of protests.
An Israeli military spokesman, Ofir Gendelman, challenged the family’s account, saying, “We have evidence casting