‘It’s a nightmare I can’t shake’: The lives robbed by Israel’s Gaza assault

In a new B’Tselem report, Palestinians recount how their loved ones were killed by Israel’s bombing campaign in May. Here are four of their testimonies.

“The horror in the Gaza Strip has been going on for so many years. We have reported on the blockade, the poverty, the wars. We have shared stories of life without water, without electricity, without hope. We have explained what international law requires and what conscience dictates. Now, words fail us.”

This admission opens the latest report from Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, which features 35 testimonies from Palestinian residents of Gaza who experienced the inferno of Israel’s 11-day bombing campaign this past May. (Full disclosure: I am on the board of B’Tselem.)

For Israeli Jews, May 2021 is remembered as a month of “clashes,” primarily in East Jerusalem and some so-called mixed cities. Thanks to the Israeli media’s disproportionate coverage of violent acts by Palestinian citizens, the period has been inscribed in their collective memory as a month of Jewish victimization. Israel’s deliberate violent escalation is long forgotten; Gaza, as always, vanished from our consciousness the moment the rocket fire stopped. The so-called “Operation Guardian of the Walls” became just another name among a list of grotesque titles Israel has given to its habitual attacks on the strip.

Palestinians in Gaza, however, experienced 11 days in which the gates of hell opened once more, suffering one of the deadliest and most destructive assaults on the strip to date.

The military campaign killed 232 Palestinians, including 54 minors and 38 women, according to B’Tselem’s records. Of the dead, 137 did not take part in the fighting, while 90 (including one minor) were involved in taking up arms; B’Tselem has so far been unable to determine the status of the remaining five victims. Rockets launched by Hamas and other Palestinian groups killed a further 20 Palestinians, including seven minors. B’Tselem has yet to determine who is responsible for the deaths of a further eight Palestinians, including six children.

Bare statistics, however, cannot capture the horror of what took place. Its full significance should be sought not only in a counting of the dead but in the voices of the survivors — or rather, those whose bodies survived the onslaught, but whose souls evaporated along with the walls of their home and the loss of their loved ones. It is these voices that inform B’Tselem’s new report.

Below is a sample of those testimonies. I have focused on the stories of women whose children, partners, and families became part of the army’s “collateral damage” — or as one witness put it, Israel’s “target bank.”

There is, for example, Muna Aman, a 47-year-old mother of six from Beit Lahiya at the northern tip of Gaza, whose husband Muhammad and three of her daughters — Walaa, 24; Warda, 22; and Hadil, 18 — were killed by an Israeli bomb dropped on their home on May 13. A Hamas operative from the group’s military wing lived in the same building as the family, but he was not home at the time of the attack, and it is unclear if he was the target of the bombing. What is clear is that Aman’s husband and three of her daughters, who did not take part in the fighting, lost their lives.

Aman recounts: “On May 13, 2021, at around 11:00 p.m., I woke up suddenly in complete darkness. There was debris, dust, and smoke all around me. I couldn’t see anything. I felt terrible pain all over my body, and it felt like things were piercing it. I also felt burns on my body and face. The pain was so strong, I screamed. Suddenly, one of my daughters came, I don’t know which one, and pulled me out. Just then, I heard another missile and lost sight of her. The place filled with smoke and dust.

“Then the paramedics came. I asked them to look for my daughters. They told me they’d take care of me first and then look for them. I lost consciousness and woke up the next morning at the ICU in a-Shifaa Hospital in Gaza City. I asked my relatives about my children, and they said they were alright. A few days later, the doctors moved me to the orthopedic department, where I was told my husband Muhammad had been killed. I went into shock and cried.

“A few minutes later, I was told that three of my daughters had also been killed – Hadil, Warda, and Walaa. I went into shock. They were my hope, my whole life, especially Hadil, who was the most spoiled and was very attached to me. It was a shock for me. I never thought anything like that would happen to me. I don’t know how to go on living.”

‘My son screams our house is about to be destroyed’

The day after Muna was made a widow and a grieving mother, the Israeli army fired a missile at another home in Beit Lahiya that killed Lamyaa Muhammad Hassan al-’Attar, 26, and her three young children: Islam, 8, Amirah, 6, and Muhammad, 9 months. Manar al-’Attar, Lamyaa’s sister-in-law and a mother of five, recounted the massacre; she lives on the first floor of the same building that Lamyaa and her family lived in, one story down from them. 

“On Thursday, after midnight, we were all home. That day, there were heavy Israeli airstrikes. My husband Ihab went to the bedroom, and I stayed with my sons in the living room. At around midnight, I told my husband to come be with us in the living room. As soon as he left the bedroom, it was bombed. The windows shattered and all the doors in the house crashed. We all screamed and cried. We ran from the living room to the kitchen.

“A few seconds later, Ihab said he thought it was over and everything was quiet. But then the house started shaking and I fell over. We looked at each other and didn’t understand what was happening. The fridge fell on my husband and then the ceiling collapsed on us and on top of the fridge. There was a gas leak and we felt that we were suffocating. We screamed and called out for help, but no one heard us.”

After about a quarter of an hour, Bahaa, Manar’s brother-in-law, arrived and helped to pull her, her children, and her husband from the rubble. Already, she says, she realized that Lamyaa and her children hadn’t survived.

“When we were outside, we shone our flashlights on the house and saw it was in ruins. We were sure Lamyaa and her small children were dead. Everyone was looking for her under the rubble and calling out to her. At around 1:00 A.M., my brother-in-law Bahaa said he’d seen Lamyaa and her kids under the rubble and couldn’t save them. He said they’d been killed.”

After the explosion, Manar and her family were forced to leave the home they’d lived in for 21 years. Her son Ahmad, who also witnessed the attack, is still struggling to recover.

“Lamyaa’s kids were always at my house, playing with my son Ahmad. He keeps asking about them and can’t believe they’re dead. He keeps asking us to get them out from under the rubble, like we removed some of the furniture. He’s in a bad emotional state. At night, when the power is cut off, he screams and says our house is about to be destroyed and asks us not to leave him.”

The Israeli army explained the massacre of the al-’Attar family by referring to “a network of Hamas tunnels [that] ran close to the house.”

‘We can’t hear Dad’s voice’

The al-’Attar family was not the only one to lose four of its members in one attack. On May 16, at 1 a.m., the IDF fired a missile at four residential buildings in the a-Rimal neighborhood, killing 46 people.

Among them were 36 members of the al-Qolaq family (the oldest, Amin Muhammad Hamad al-Qolaq, was 90 years old; the youngest, Adam, was 3). Five members of the Ishkuntana family were killed (‘Abir, 29, and her four children, aged between 2 and 9); the al-Ifrangi family lost five of its members (Rajaa, 41, and her four children, aged between 9 and 15); and 10 members of the Abu al-’Oaf family were also killed.

This bloodshed, too, was explained away by the Israeli army as being down to “a network of Hamas tunnels that ran under the street.”

Buthaynah Na’im al-Qumo’, a 47-year-old mother of five who lived in the Abu al-’Oaf building with her family, lost her husband in the attack. Her searing testimony describes the moments of terror during the assault, when her house was shelled and they were buried under the rubble.

“The wall and the roof fell on me, and the wardrobe fell on [my son] Muhammad. I asked Muhammad if he had his phone and he said yes. He called his uncle Hassan al-Qumo’ and his sister Ghadir. He told them, ‘Our house has been bombed and we’re buried under the rubble. We can’t hear Dad’s voice.’

“I started to choke because of the debris from the roof covering me. I had no air. Muhammad tried to help me out, but he couldn’t. We stayed under the rubble for almost three hours. Muhammad held his phone up with a stick to help the rescue team locate us.”

Al-Qumo’ passed out and awoke in hospital. She did not find out that her husband had been killed until after she’d been released.

“I was discharged from hospital and when I asked again to see my husband, they told me that it would be better to go home first and come later to see him. I went to my parents’ house, changed clothes and told my family that I wanted to go back to the hospital. I noticed their expressions were strange. I asked them if anything had happened, because I felt something was wrong. I said, ‘Tell me what happened.’

“My sister Sanaa hugged me and said, ‘Be strong. May God give you patience and compensate you.’ I collapsed immediately, because I understood Hazem had been killed. I immediately went to his parents’ house, where I saw him. He looked like he was asleep, as if he would wake up any time soon. I hugged him and screamed, ‘Wake up, Hazem!’ My children broke down. Those were the most harrowing moments we’ve ever been through.

“I pray for God to have mercy on us and help me bear this loss. The Israeli military attacked our home for no reason. They didn’t even warn us before the bombing. Suddenly, our house blew up while we were inside. I keep thinking, why did they even bomb our house and rob me of my husband and the children of their father?”

‘A little girl just starting her life’

During those hellish 11 days in Gaza, death lurked not only between the walls of people’s homes in multi-story buildings, but also in the street.

On May 19, Dima ‘Asaliyah, 10, was killed by an Israeli missile fired east of the Jabaliya refugee camp. Her mother, Dina ‘Asaliyah, recounts how that same evening she wanted to take advantage of an unexpected supply of electricity in order to bake bread, and so she sent Dima to her sister’s house to fetch an electric baking pan. Dima, she recalls, left clutching candy.

“After 10 minutes, I heard a very loud explosion by the house. The windows shattered, including in the kitchen. I was terrified. I said I was leaving and taking Dima to the UNRWA school. My husband said I should go to his brother’s house before there was another attack. I went to get dressed, and then I heard someone say something about Dima. I rushed outside and saw a car driving away. My husband Sa’ed was standing there, and then he told me Dima had been killed. I collapsed. I was in shock. I started reciting: ‘We are the servants of Allah, and our fate is to return to him.’ Everyone around me was praying and I wept.”

Dina says that her daughter had been very frightened by the shelling and earlier that day had begged her parents to go to one of the school shelters that had been opened. But her father, who recalled how those improvised shelters had become targets during the 2014 war, was afraid to take his family there. In the end, the missile found Dima meters from her home.

“I keep thinking, how did she stand the pain?” asks Dina. “What exactly happened to her when the missile hit her? Did it hurt? Did she call for her father or for me? What was she doing at that moment? I can’t get those questions out of my head. It’s a nightmare I can’t shake.”

Still torn by grief, Dina says: “Dima was a target in the Israeli military’s target bank. That’s their target bank, a little girl just starting her life.”

This article also appeared in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.