‘Bombardments. Fear. Leave your house, you can die’

Upset and angry, bereaved survivors of destroyed homes shelter in a school, writes Ruadhán Mac Cormaic, in Gaza City

The mother of one of the four Palestinian children from the Bakr family, whom medics said were killed by a shell fired by an Israeli naval gunboat, grieves outside the morgue in Gaza City. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters

The mother of one of the four Palestinian children from the Bakr family, whom medics said were killed by a shell fired by an Israeli naval gunboat, grieves outside the morgue in Gaza City. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters

Thu, Jul 17, 2014, 01:01

Hassen al-Batsh and four of his cousins left the mosque just before 10pm and walked the short distance to their home in Shujaiyya, a densely populated residential district in the east of Gaza city. Hassen stopped outside to talk to some neighbours while his cousins walked on towards the house. “Next thing I heard was a massive explosion,” the young man recalls, standing next to the mangled iron rods that mark the spot where the two-storey home stood until the weekend. “The house just crumbled.”

Eighteen members of Hassen’s family were killed when an Israeli F16 obliterated their house that night, making it the deadliest Israeli bombing since the latest confrontation began last week. The target is believed to have been Tayseer al-Batsh, Gaza’s police chief, who survived. Many of those in the immediate vicinity didn’t.

Hassen says he found someone’s hand in the rubble. Four adjacent houses were destroyed and a patch of land the size of half a football pitch is strewn with the grotesque detritus of the blast: a car door, a fluttering copybook, a single boot. “What are we supposed to do after all these people have died?” Hassen asks.

Sounds of death

Yesterday, the noise in Gaza City was all in the sky. Each sound is distinct: the sustained screech of an outgoing rocket; the deep, earth-shaking boom of an incoming bomb; the unseen roar of a fighter jet; and the far-off muffled thuds of Israel’s defensive missile shield being called into action. On the ground, normal life is on hold.

In Zeitoun, in the east of Gaza City, whole streets were deserted after the Israel Defence Forces had earlier dropped leaflets warning residents to leave their homes in advance of missile attacks on targets. Some left, but many didn’t, opting instead to remain indoors and hope for the best.

Of those who fled, some ended up at a United Nations-run school that has been transformed into a teeming, chaotic sanctuary for 1,600 people. Families sleep on the classroom floors, the school desks having been removed and stacked in the courtyard to make more room. The UN staff, who distribute mattresses, water and bread to the new arrivals, are overworked and short of supplies. “We’re full, but people keep coming and we’re trying to find places for them,” says Awad, an official doing his best to placate those beseeching him for help. According to the UN Relief and Works Agency, which runs the units , there are 22,000 people in 30 such shelters in the Gaza Strip.

Collateral damage

“It’s an inhuman situation,” says Maher al-Attar, who is here with 30 members of his extended family. Why did he leave home? “Bombardments. Fear. We had no water, no electricity. If you leave your house, you can die.” The final straw, he says, was when the bombing of a nearby house caused damage to his own. As we speak, two rockets lift off. Nobody even turns to look.

Another evacuee, Ghalia al-Sawarka, left her home in Beit Lahiya, at the northern end of the Gaza Strip, in the middle of the night because it became too much. The daily explosions have taken a toll on Ahmad, her four-year-old son, who has been brought to hospital twice to be treated for shock.

“My boy was so scared . . . He was screaming and shouting all night,” she says, clutching him to her side. Ghalia accuses Israel of “psychologically terrorising” people in Gaza, and she will hear no criticism of Hamas. “May God protect Hamas,” she says. “Without Hamas, we’d be completely lost.”

The city is tense, its people on edge. And when the situation can change dramatically within minutes, word must travel quickly. Text messages and brief phone calls spread news of the latest bombing or a new warning from the Israeli side.

It was on Facebook that 27-year-old Riwaa Bassal found out last Saturday night that her younger brother, Mohammed, had been killed when a bomb hit a building he was walking past in Zeitoun. The next day, she received an Israeli leaflet urging her to leave her home, and she did. As we speak, in the classroom that has become home for Riwaa and her extended family, children run about and the adults sit against the wall beneath the blackboard, talking and passing the time.

“My brother was walking in the street,” Riwaa says. “He wasn’t carrying a rocket. He was walking peacefully,” she says, pushing back tears. On her phone she has photos of his corpse.

Perceptions of Israel

Riwaa’s husband, Tamer Zeid, insists he doesn’t know much about politics, but he wants to have his say. “The UN supports Binyamin Netanyahu when he says he has to protect his people from rockets. The US Congress says Israel has the right to protect itself. The whole world looks at Israel. But not at what is happening to us.” Tamer is furious, but his wife exudes sadness. “We want safety,” she says. “That’s the most important thing. We want to live just like people in other countries.”