GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Some were killed when tank shells hit their homes. Others died when bombs erased their offices. Still others met their end battling Israeli troops.
Now their faces are rolling off the presses at the Nibras print shop, which produces full-color posters and banners of the dead. In the wake of Israel's 22-day Gaza offensive — which killed nearly 1,300 Palestinians — it's one of the few businesses experiencing a postwar boom.
Click to photos of the posters.
Islamic Jihad fighter Mohammed Bedawi was among the so-called "martyrs" whose demise was commemorated with a custom-made poster — a tradition for anyone killed by Israel.
"The drone hit him," said his cousin, Abed Bedawi, 21, referring to Israel's unmanned surveillance planes, often seen in Gaza's skies. "He was laying a bomb for a tank when the drone fired a missile at him."
Before the war, about 30 percent of the print shop's orders were for martyr posters, co-owner Ahmed al-Hor said; the rest were for things like shop signs and labels for products like tomato sauce, soap and baby food. Now, posters of the dead are 90 percent of his business.
A steady stream of customers flowed through the print shop's simple walk-up office on a recent afternoon, all men, most bearded, some wearing military-style pants and jackets. A few admitted affiliation with Gaza's armed groups, and the vast majority of their orders commemorated fallen fighters.
Bedawi unfurled his poster to reveal a large photo of his stern-looking 20-year-old cousin, ringed with silhouettes of palm trees and birds in flight. "As a farewell," the text read. In the top corner was an emblem of Islamic Jihad, a militant group Israel says is backed by Iran.
Bedawi said he'd give it to his aunt to hang in her house.
Others told similar stories. "They were out on a jihad mission, then came back and a missile hit them at the door of their house," said Yusuf Mustapha, who was picking up 1,000 copies of a poster showing 10 Islamic Jihad militants killed in the Zeitoun area south of Gaza City.
"The families of the martyrs will take them, and we'll hang them all over to decorate the neighborhood," said Mustapha.
Asked where he got the $925 for the order, he just smiled and said, "from the good people." When pressed, Mustapha, 25, said that he too was an Islamic Jihad member.
Not all the posters were for militants.
"These are new ones here, all one family," said 26-year-old printer Mahmoud Istewi, pulling up computer images to send to the shop's industrial printer to make into a huge plastic banner.
"Martyrs from the house of Deeb," read the text on the screen, above photos of two men, three boys, two girls and four roses, representing women.
"Those who were raised to the heavens during a hateful Zionist strike on Jan. 16, 2009," read the text underneath.
Istewi knew nothing else about how they died. "We just print them," he said with a shrug. "They give us the work and we do it."
Palestinians consider those killed by Israel to be "martyrs" and have long commemorated them by hanging posters bearing their names and photos in homes and neighborhoods. But never before have so many died so quickly, causing the rush at Nibras.
Al-Hor said he got the first orders before an informal cease-fire between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers stopped the fighting on Jan. 17. The shop reopened two days later and has been busy ever since.
The posters have added a new element to the debate over how many militants were killed by Israel. The Israeli military says it killed 700, while Hamas and other militant groups say they lost 158. In its final report on the death toll, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights said 223 of the 1,285 killed in the war were fighters.
Although the shop doesn't keep records, al-Hor guesses he has done posters for 350 people since the fighting ended, about 250 of them militants, suggesting the militant groups lost more fighters than they acknowledge. Others say the groups often claim the dead as members of their movements even when they were not.
These days, 1,000 copies of a 3-foot paper poster costs $925, but most customers prefer large plastic banners, which cost $1.20 per square foot.
That's double what they went for before the Islamic militant Hamas took over Gaza in 2007 and Israel imposed a tight blockade on the seaside territory. Since then, the shop has bought supplies smuggled in through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, boosting costs.
Al-Hor knows the boom is temporary.
"This will continue for a month or so, then we'll go back to the usual stuff and only 30 percent will be martyrs," he said. "They (the martyrs) might get less, but they don't go away."
To place their orders, customers bring in digital photos on flash drives and look on while al-Hor and his partner use photo software to build the desired tableau. Most bring several photos: the departed in a suit and tie on his wedding day, for example, plus a few of him toting a rocket launcher or wielding an automatic rifle.
These are combined with stock images, the most popular being the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Others opt for graphics of militants firing rockets or verdant natural scenes invoking heaven.
Because most orders are paid for by militant groups, the shop is careful to avoid taking sides in the often-fractious Palestinian political scene, for fear of losing customers.
A glass case in the shop holds plaques of appreciation from both the Islamic militant Hamas and its secular rival, Fatah, which rules the West Bank. The Palestinian factions fought a brief but bloody war over control of Gaza in 2007.
Colorful posters of Gaza's three largest armed groups adorn the walls. One bore the bearded faces of 24 Hamas fighters over a vivid graphic of dead and wounded Israeli soldiers. Another showed nine Islamic Jihad gunmen, some wearing black berets, above pictures of camouflaged militants launching rockets.
"We do business," al-Hor said. "Anyone who wants a photo, we do it for him."