From my hometown in Gaza, the unthinkable news: 36 of my family members are dead

The Khan Yunis refugee camp was supposed to be in the safe zone. But nowhere is safe – the very existence of Palestinians is under attack

My family home was supposed to be in the safe zone in southern Gaza. But last week the bombs came anyway, without warning. They fell at around 10 o’clock on Thursday morning in four or five big explosions. An entire residential quarter of the Khan Yunis refugee camp, where I was born and raised, was reduced to rubble. Everyone there experienced it as an earthquake; a human-made earthquake. The whole camp was shaking.

I’ve counted 49 dead – among them are 36 members of my family. Another dozen or more are still missing under the rubble of eight homes, I’m told, and more than 100 are injured.

I now reside in Canada but my family home still stands in that same Khan Yunis camp, metres away from where the bombs fell, and it is where much of my extended family still live. This home is all we have left from our late parents and grandparents after they were driven out of Beit Daras village and into the Gaza Strip during the 1948 Nakba – the mass expulsion of Palestinians. Thousands of people were forced to leave our village back then and many made their way to Khan Yunis. Initially intended as a temporary stop until they could return to their homes, families from Beit Daras preferred to live in close proximity to one another. Over time, this temporary arrangement evolved into an enduring one.

These homes were packed with additional people who had fled from the Israeli bombardment of Gaza City when the bombs started to fall – one family to each room. I want to tell you about some of the lives cut short.

Two-year-old Julia Abu Hussein, my sister’s granddaughter, was in the living room of my family home eagerly awaiting the arrival of my niece, Rasha, to take her to the shop to buy sweets. When the first bombs fell, Julia’s mother, Rawan, grabbed her daughter and ran into the kitchen with the rest of the family. But a piece of shrapnel blasted into the kitchen and killed Julia in her mother’s arms.

Just two weeks ago, Julia’s parents – my nephew Amjad and his wife, Rawan –followed the Israeli military’s orders to get out of Gaza City, leaving their home and moving south in search of safety. Together with my sister’s family, it took them three days to travel less than 20 miles to Khan Yunis – for three days we believed they were dead. It’s 2023 but it’s like we woke up to 1948. People running again in search for safety. When they arrived in the “safe zone” they realised that no place in the Gaza Strip was actually safe.

My 79-year-old great-uncle, Nayif Abu Shammala, a retired teacher, and his wife, Fathiya, were among the survivors of the Nakba. They lived right across from us and died there under the bombs. Their three daughters and four sons were killed, too.

When she was young, one of them, Aisha, was known as the cutest face in the camp. She was one of those people who radiated happiness. Her sister Dawlat had been living in the UAE and was on a visit home to see her family when the bombs fell. She leaves behind two children and a husband who did not even get the chance to bid her a final farewell. The youngest of the sisters, Umaima, and her daughter Malak had also fled the bombardment in the north. But the bombs caught up with them anyway.

Nayif and Fathiya’s sons – Zuhair, Hassan, Mahmoud and Mohammed – all died alongside their wives. The lives of Hassan’s three children were sacrificed to the bombs as well. These children are not distant strangers; they were beautiful souls I knew well. Children whose character-filled faces I can still see. Children who told me of their dreams for the lives ahead of them. All now ground into the dust.

Why did Israel kill them? The family has no political affiliations. Nothing can justify this heinous crime of killing three generations unless being Palestinian is the crime.

My great-aunt, Um Said, lived a long life, at least. She was 92 and was at home with her daughter, Najat, when the bombs fell. They both now find their resting place under the rubble.

Last summer while I visited Gaza, Um Said kindly gave me an embroidered dress that she once wore. She insisted that I take it back to Canada with me. I am grateful that I did. It’s all that I have left to remember her by.

I am struggling to find new ways of describing death – gone, taken, dead, under the rubble, their souls in heaven. The Israeli propaganda machine tells me that they aren’t dead at all because Palestinians must be lying about the numbers of deaths even as we mourn. Or, if they are indeed dead, then they must be “terrorists”.

In truth, the list of dead innocents is so long and so painful. So many children. So many who led good lives. Um Said’s daughter-in-law, Suhaila, was a teacher. So was Imtiyaz, the wife of Asa’ad, my first cousin once removed, who ran a small grocery shop that was a favourite place for my own son, Aziz, to visit when we returned to our homeland.

Asa’ad was known throughout the Khan Yunis camp as a gentle soul who sold goods for little money. He kept a thick ledger of the names of people who owed him payment but often forgot to call in his debts or he simply wrote them off. His beaming face, his shop, his kindness and his family were all stolen from us in broad daylight. When the bombs fell, Asa’ad’s shop was packed. I counted at least six children who died there. Asa’ad’s sons, Hussein and Abdelrahman, a third year medical student, were among the dead.

I want to ask President Biden why he supports this. Does he believe that the pain of an Israeli mother is different from that of a Palestinian mother? Is her blood more valuable than the blood of those in Gaza? This is the only explanation that I can find for what Biden is encouraging in Gaza.

Surviving family members send me pictures from Khan Yunis. Of Julia’s bloody body wrapped in a white sheet and carried by my cousin Jameel. Of destroyed homes. This is just one small slice of the suffering being served up in Gaza. I understand that in a war civilians die. But this is a pattern. Israel talks of Hamas-run schools and Hamas-run hospitals to continue the dehumanisation of Palestinians and to set the stage for more crimes. It’s just an excuse to kill more civilians. This is targeting the very existence of the Palestinians. To me, this is genocide.

Ghada Ageel, a third-generation Palestinian refugee, worked as a translator for the Guardian in Gaza from 2000 to 2006. She is currently visiting professor at the department of political science at the University of Alberta.