Dispatch

'They Killed 25 to Get One'

Gaza's civilians count the dead. 

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza — The Abu Jamaa family was digging into its food when the Israeli missile hit the family's home in Khan Younis, Gaza's second-largest city. It was iftar, the sunset meal that marks the breaking of the fast during Ramadan, a time of day relatives gather together to eat and relax.

The F-16 airstrike came just as the call to prayer began, signaling that it was time to eat. There was no warning. Twenty-five members of the family were killed, including 17 children, three pregnant women, and a grandmother, according to relatives. The four-story building was reduced to rubble. It took the family 12 hours, with two diggers and a bulldozer, to dig out the bodies. A deep crater of sand and broken concrete is all that's left of the house.

"It wasn't an F-16; it was a nuclear bomb," says Hussein Abu Jamaa, who lost his mother, brother, three sisters-in-law, and too many nieces and nephews for him to recount.

Hussein was heading to the mosque to pray and had just stepped out the door when the missile hit. He has a broken leg, a broken finger, and shrapnel in his chest and back. "They were all sitting together around the table when I left them," he says. He weeps between every sentence.

Ten of the bodies are taken to the European Hospital in Khan Younis, the rest to nearby Nasser Hospital. Medical staff at the European Hospital unwrap the white shrouds one at a time to do autopsies and finalize death certificates. The examinations are brief: a quick lifting and turning of each corpse. The cause of death is not in question.

One shroud is much smaller than all the others. It is of the youngest victim, Njoud, just 9 months old. The doctor picks her up with one hand. She is wearing a diaper and a Minnie Mouse T-shirt with a pink bow.

Standing outside the door of the morgue is Riyad Abu Saleh, 45. He is waiting to receive the body of his eldest daughter, Fatma, 24. Her husband, Yasser Abu Jamaa, and their three young children, ages 6, 4, and 2, were killed with her. Fatma was cut in two by the airstrike. Only half of her body is at the European Hospital morgue. Abu Saleh must go to the Nasser Hospital to collect the other half.

"We pulled her out of the rubble in pieces," Abu Saleh says. "We want the Israelis to leave; we want the border crossings open; we want a life of dignity without all this killing. We are under siege, and death is being brought upon us."

The attack on the Abu Jamaa family's house was one of the deadliest strikes since the beginning of Israel's assault on Gaza on July 8. Over the past 15 days, more than 600 Palestinians have been killed, according to Gaza's Health Ministry.*

The toll is up more than 300 in the five days since Israel's ground invasion began. More than 75 percent of the dead are civilians, according to the United Nations, including over 110 children. Upwards of 3,700 people have been injured.*

In public speeches and in the media, Israeli officials trumpet their targeted operations and care to avoid civilian deaths. The Israeli army says repeatedly that it takes "every possible measure to minimize civilian casualties." The number of civilians killed belies that claim, as the Abu Jamaa family and scores of others across Gaza show.

The Israeli military has yet to explain why it targeted the Abu Jamaa family's home. (The Israel Defense Forces did not respond to a request for comment.) According to a report by Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, the target of the strike was Ahmad Suliman Sahmoud, who was joining the family to break the fast. Sahmoud was a member of the Qassam Brigades, Hamas's armed wing, which has launched nearly 2,000 rockets into Israel over the past two weeks and is currently engaged in urban warfare in northern and eastern Gaza.

Mohamed Abu Jamaa, a 17-year-old relative, stands next to the remains of the razed home. While he speaks, the boom of an Israeli tank shell sends him jumping several feet back. "They killed 25 to get one," he says.

Stories like this surface with sickening frequency. On the same day as the attack on the Abu Jamaa family in Khan Younis, at least nine members of the Siam family in nearby Rafah were killed in an Israeli strike, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

On July 12, a twin F-16 missile strike in Gaza City killed 18 members of the Batsh family. The Israelis were reportedly targeting Gaza's police chief, Tayseer al-Batsh, who was critically wounded in the attack. The 18 are buried near the debris of the house. "We keep asking why," says Hassan al-Batsh, 20.*

On July 18, eight members of the Abu Jarad family, including five children, were killed when an Israeli tank shell crashed into the wall of the bedroom where they were watching TV. Three days after the attack, the surviving Abu Jarads left their home in northeastern Gaza, fleeing a heavy Israeli assault on the area.*

The Abu Jarads join the more than 100,000 Palestinians in Gaza who have been forced out of their homes, many without any of their belongings. They do not know when they can return home or whether their homes will be standing when they get back.

Even the wounded are not safe. On Monday, July 21, Israeli tanks shelled al-Aqsa Hospital in central Gaza Strip. Four people were killed and 70 wounded. On July 17, al-Wafa Rehabilitation Hospital, which houses disabled and paralyzed patients, was struck. Five days earlier, the Mobarat Felestin Center, a home for the disabled, was bombed, leaving two disabled patients dead.

There are countless other stories. On Sunday, Israel blanketed the Shejaiya neighborhood east of Gaza City with artillery fire and missile strikes. It was the bloodiest day of the conflict. Almost 80 people were killed in the area alone. Residents fled in the thousands. Many ended up at Gaza's main Shifa Hospital. The halls were filled with people calling out the names of their missing relatives. They did not know whether their families had been reduced in number by the violence or not.

Mohamed Fayed is an employee at the European Hospital in Khan Younis, where 10 members of the Abu Jamaa family are departing for their final resting place, Khan Younis's graveyard. He stands by the back entrance as a procession of shrouded bodies exits, on their way to burial. "No one is saying anything," he says about the civilian casualties of Israel's assault on Gaza. "It's like giving them permission to kill."

Corrections, July 22, 2014:
--Israel's offensive against Gaza began on July 8, meaning that July 22 is the 15th day of the offensive. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the offensive began July 7 and implied that it was in its 13th day. (Return to reading.)
--As of July 22, it has been five days since the ground invasion began on July 17. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that it had been four days since the ground
invasion began. (Return to reading.)
--The missile strike that killed 18 members of the Batsh family occurred July 12.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that it occurred June 12. (Return to reading.)
--The tank shell that killed eight members of the Abu Jarad family occurred July 18. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that it occurred June 18. (Return to reading.)

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Nowhere to Run

Gaza's residents, under a constant barrage of Israeli bombs, are being told to evacuate to stay safe. If they could escape, they would.

GAZA CITY — Gamal Magdi Mushtaha had been up all night, unable to sleep, when his cellphone rang at 7:30 a.m. on Friday. The man on the other end of the line identified himself as an Israeli military officer. "Gamal," he said, addressing the father of three by his first name, "you have to leave your house."

To anyone other than a resident of Gaza, the call would be baffling. But Mushtaha, a 39-year-old contractor from Shejaiya, a town east of Gaza City, knew what this was about. The Israeli military was going to bomb his home.

He argued with the officer, explaining to him that five families live in the three-story house, including 15 children. "I told him I'm not wanted, that I'm a civilian," Mushtaha says. "He just said my house was a target and I had five minutes to get out."

Mushtaha woke up his family and rushed them out the door and down the street. A few minutes later he watched as his home was reduced to rubble in a double airstrike -- one missile falling after the other. "I don't know where to go or what to do. I have no home now," he says.

Israel has lauded its warnings to Palestinians ahead of bombing their homes as a humanitarian act, a magnanimous gesture towards its enemy and a tactic designed to minimize civilian casualties. But in Gaza, it is a cruel reminder of how powerless residents are in the face of Israel's military machine and of their inability to prevent the wanton destruction of their lives. From Gaza City in the north to Khan Younis in the south, Palestinians in Gaza are being told to leave their homes, businesses, and even hospitals to make way for Israeli bombs. Too often, they have nowhere to go.

Warnings or not, the Israeli military has killed nearly 300 Palestinians since the latest bombing campaign began on July 8, some 77 percent of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Over 1,700 homes have been destroyed or severely damaged.

Eleven days in and there is no end in sight to the assault from the air. The bombardment is almost always worse at night. After announcing the start of a ground offensive on Thursday, July 17, Israel attacked by air, land, and sea -- pounding Gaza with naval artillery, tank shells, and airstrikes. Power lines were hit and the Strip was plunged into darkness. Israeli flares cast a fiery orange glow over the smoke and dust climbing into the air where the bombs landed.*

Gaza stayed deserted the next day as the bombing continued unabated. Rubble, twisted metal, and broken glass littered the streets. A few families on rickety horse-drawn carts creaked along, carrying scant belongings. They were fleeing their homes to avoid the intense shelling, particularly in the northern and eastern parts of the Strip.

Residents who witnessed the ground offensive said Israeli forces did not venture far into Gaza. "Bulldozers, jeeps, and tanks came in about 50 meters, then they started shelling heavily," said Gamal Hassan Sultan, a resident from al-Atatra, about a mile from the Israeli border.

So far, it has been more of an incursion than a full-scale invasion, though Israel has vowed to expand its operations. And the Israeli military continues its warnings to Gaza's residents, though they are not always heeded.

Since the beginning of the war, Israel had been calling the al-Wafa rehabilitation hospital in eastern Gaza telling them to evacuate ahead of a scheduled bombing, according to the hospital's executive director Basman al-Ashi. The Israeli military says it was attacking military targets nearby. Many of the patients at al-Wafa are severely disabled or paralyzed, unable to move. The staff refuses to leave.

The fourth floor of the hospital was first shelled on Tuesday, and several times after that. Doctors moved the patients to the first floor to withstand the assault. Around 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, they received another call from an Israeli officer telling them to evacuate. Again, they refused. Minutes later, the attack began with artillery shells crashing into the fourth, third, and second floors.

"The electricity went out, all the windows shattered, the hospital was full of dust, we couldn't see anything," says Aya Abdan, a 16-year-old patient at the hospital who is paraplegic and has cancer in her spinal cord. She is one of the few who can speak. Many of the other patients are comatose.

Under heavy fire, the handful of doctors and staff carried out the 17 remaining patients on stretchers, in blankets, and in their arms to ambulances that had arrived after braving the intense shelling. They were transferred to the Sahaba Medical Complex in Gaza City. Al-Wafa hospital was completely destroyed. "I was very afraid," Abdan says. "I'm still afraid."

Sometimes, Israel's warnings come in the form of a "knock on the roof" -- a lower-grade munition fired at a building to encourage residents to evacuate prior to a much bigger strike. The blast may be less lethal but it is nevertheless terrifying.

Maher Dabbagh, who lives in the center of Gaza City, was shocked out of his slumber at 4:00 a.m. on Thursday by such a strike on his roof. Many Palestinian families have taken to sleeping together in the same room to be able to evacuate in time. Dabbagh scrambled out of his house with his five kids. His neighbors all did the same, flooding out of their homes and running down the street, young children tripping over each other screaming. Minutes later, two missiles slammed into an empty lot adjacent to the house. "It felt like an earthquake," Dabbagh said.

The bombing left deep cracks in the walls of his home, some buckling dangerously inward, and destroyed part of the first floor. "We were all surprised. I've never seen a rocket go out from here," he said. "Why do they do this?"

The Israeli air force has also taken to showering districts of Gaza with thousands of leaflets, instructing residents to flee, or risk putting "his and his family's lives at risk. Beware." Over the past several days, leaflets have warned Palestinians to leave their homes in the north, south, and east. More than 40,000 residents have been displaced, according to the United Nations.

Tamer Zayed fled with his family from Beit Lahia, a town near Gaza's northern border, to Gaza City after leaflets were dropped on his district. He is now sleeping on the floor of a classroom in a U.N.-run school that has been converted into a makeshift shelter. His brother-in-law was killed days earlier, in an airstrike as he was walking down the street.

"Every two years we leave our houses and we come here," Zayed says, referring to previous Israeli assaults. "And the whole world just watches."

But often the Israelis give no warning at all.

At 7:00 a.m. on Friday, an Apache helicopter fired three missiles, one minute apart, into the eighth floor of the al-Jawhara building in Gaza City where the Watania News Agency, a well-known local TV production company, has its offices. Thirty media workers were sleeping inside, as they had for the past 11 days, working night and day to cover the war. Miraculously, only two people were wounded in the attack.

"We are well-known journalists," says Mustafa Shahada, the executive director of Watania, standing in the street amid the debris, glass, and papers from his office in the street below the building. The twisted shell of one of the missiles lay nearby. "God knows why they hit us."

Residents of Gaza can do little in the face of Israel's assault. Yet not all messages to Palestinians in Gaza are threats. On Thursday evening, as the Israeli bombardment was at its peak, many customers of the Palestinian cellphone service Jawwal received a text message. "Dear customer, 10 shekels credit has been added to your account free of charge for use in emergency situations, may God help you. The Jawwal family prays that God may protect you and our people from any harm."

Correction, July 21, 2014: Israel started its ground offensive in Gaza on Thursday, July 17. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the offensive started on June 17. (Return to reading.)

MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images