GAZA CITY, Palestine: Sitting at home for dinner or running for their lives in dark streets, generations of the same families are dying in Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.
Survivors are witnessing large numbers of relatives killed in a single strike and in their grief seek justice. According to a Reuters tally, at least 18 families in the Palestinian enclave have lost four or more members. One lost 28.
Israel says it seeks to target only militants who are firing rockets from the coastal strip into its territory, but Save the Children reported Wednesday that a child had been killed every hour over the last two days.
When Israeli shells rained down nearly nonstop in the early hours of Sunday morning, the Ayyad family cowered in their hallway too scared to escape the border town of Shejaia, once home to 100,000 and now a rubble-filled war zone.
At first light, they made their move. Mothers swept up toddlers in their arms and fathers clasped children’s hands. “We walked, then ran as a group but they shelled us. ... I’ll never forget the image I saw as long as I live. It may even follow me to my grave,” said Imran, 29.
Eleven of their number, including a pair of 2-year-olds, lay amid the dust and fallen trees.
“Painfully enough, we decided to help some of the lightly wounded who could walk, but we left the martyrs on ground. We left our beloved cousins dead. Can you believe it?” he said.
Relatives gathered at Gaza’s main Shifa hospital where three family members were being treated for their injuries. But no one had yet summoned the courage to tell one young woman sprayed with shrapnel how much she had lost that morning.
“She’s my daughter. I can’t tell her that her son, the one she gave birth to after eight years of marriage, was killed,” said the woman’s mother, Umm Osama Ayyad. “Her husband is also dead. We can’t tell her, she may die of shock. ... I don’t want to lose her too. We’ve suffered enough already.”
Israel’s army, which describes Shejaia as a “terror nest,” says it takes pains to avoid killing innocent people, warning residents of such areas to evacuate before it opens fire. It also alerts occupants of targeted buildings by telephone and drops dummy missiles before firing live ones.
“When people do not leave their houses despite our warnings, then that is bad. We are a serious military. When we warn that you should leave a specific area then you should leave,” said Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner.
Locals say they have few safe havens in the crowded Gaza Strip, where 1.8 million live, with Israel and Egypt sealing their borders and the United Nations struggling to shelter more than 100,000 displaced people.
Lerner said Hamas used civilians as human shields and had deliberately set up its command centers in built-up areas such as Shejaia, where the Israeli military says it has uncovered a vast tunnel network.
However, he acknowledged there might have been errors.
“We recognize there is a human tragedy going on in Gaza and there can be mistakes in warfare. We are accountable, we investigate, we look into the cases,” he said.
Samir Zaqout of the Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza said he was confident that “sooner or later” Israeli leaders would be held accountable by international justice.
“What can we call these atrocities but war crimes? What happened in Shejaia was a massacre and a multiple war crime. The occupation army fired tank shells, which are mostly inaccurate, into the entire suburb and killed people indiscriminately inside their houses and as they fled,” he said.
Local medical staff say 72 Palestinians died, mostly civilians, as Israel battled militants Sunday. Twelve Israeli soldiers were killed in the assault, its largest loss of life in a single day since 2006.
For Tareq Abu Jamea, 40, of the southern city of Khan Younis, the distance between life and the instant death of 27 extended family members plus a visiting brother-in-law was just over a meter.
Mosque loudspeakers had just announced the evening invitation to break the Ramadan fast, and while his brothers and their families were dining he stepped out for a moment.
As soon as he left the house, the blast crashed down, sending him flying “like a bird” into the air and far away. “My leg was broken and I suffered a cut as well. I kept my head down and watched as death took away 28 of my family.”
A grandmother, a pregnant woman, and 19 children including four babies were crushed underneath the rubble.
“Their aim throughout this war is to kill civilians. ... They gave us no warning, no phone call and no warning missiles from the drone as they claim to,” Abu Jamea told Reuters.
Jamea wants Israelis to face international justice in The Hague. “I wonder where is the pride of the world? Where is justice? Why aren’t they sent to the International Court of Justice? Are they above the law?” he told Reuters.
Abu Jamea said his family had no connection to any political groups such as Hamas. Israel says it is looking into the incident.
Israeli rights group B’Tselem says it believes the brother-in-law killed that night was a suspected Hamas operative and was the likely target.
The army’s shelling of Shejaia may have violated the “fundamental principles of the laws of war, specifically the principle of distinguishing between combatants and civilians” said 10 Israeli human rights organizations, including B’Tselem.
Warning calls or the presence of militants among groups of civilians could not justify the mass death incidents under international law, they said.
Some Israeli officials have said they dare Palestinians to make good on threats to bring cases against it at the International Criminal Court – they say militant rocket attacks directed at their towns would make for an easy countersuit.
Amnesty International said Tuesday that both sides “have repeatedly violated international law with impunity [and] must be held accountable.”
This will be of little consolation for the Halaq family. They fled the artillery fire raining down on Shejaia to a flat in a multistory apartment building in the Remal area of downtown Gaza.
Just before dinner, an apparent missile fired from a plane hit the building, killing eight members of the family – both among those who fled and their hosts.
The youngest victim was just 5 years old. “They escaped death in Shejaia, thinking the Remal area would be safer, but the Israelis didn’t want to spare their lives,” wept one relative, who declined to be named.
“I have no faith in the world, not any more,” he said.