A night and day of ferocious violence has resulted in more than 100 deaths in Gaza, with Palestinian accusations that a bloody assault on the town of Shuja’iya by Israeli forces, leaving bodies on the streets and buildings destroyed, was motivated by revenge for the deaths of 13 soldiers.
The Israeli losses were one of the largest in one operation suffered in recent times by the Jewish state. Al Quds Force, the military wing of Hamas, had claimed that it had lured troops into a minefield. But the Israeli military stated that the deaths came in separate incidents overnight involving improvised explosive devices and a firefight.
The killing in Shuja’iya of Palestinians, including a large number of women and children, was condemned by the Palestinian government led by President Mahmoud Abbas as a “heinous massacre” and a “war crime”. Mushir al-Nasri, a senior Hamas official, said: “We have been carrying out successful military operations against the Israelis, they take their revenge on defenceless civilians”.
But the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, charged that the town had become a “fortress of terror” that had been used to fire rockets into Israel. The controversy over the Israeli mission, with the Palestinian death toll going past 425 in nearly two weeks of fighting, continued with the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, caught on a microphone saying: “ It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation. We’ve got to get over there, we ought to go tonight, it’s crazy to be sitting around here.”
Behind the international diplomatic manoeuvres and the accusations and recriminations, the terrible human cost of unfolded of what had befallen Shuja’iya.
Hania Um Aziz had been lying trapped with a broken leg in her home in Baghdad Street for 14 hours as airstrikes and tank shells pounded around the area. “All the time there was smell of blood coming from downstairs,” said the 64-year-old woman after being rescued; the bodies were those of her brother and niece, killed by tank fire. At the same time, the Al-Qassas family was fleeing the neighbourhood, under fire, along with hundreds of others, when a shell burst between them. Ten-year-old Mahmood was injured by spraying shrapnel, a woman a dozen feet away was cut in half.
But it was not just civilians who were present in Shuja’iya. Hamas fighters in black body armour could be seen taking advantage of a temporary ceasefire – in order to evacuate injured residents – to slip out of the area, hiding their weapons. Two of them hurried along with a machine-gun under a blanket, looking like a body covered by a shroud was being carried out.
Relentless barrages from aircraft, armour and artillery made it extremely hazardous to pick up the dead and the injured. Two of those who tried, Fouad Jabr, a doctor, and Khalid Hamid, a paramedic, were killed. On the streets lay the wreckage of four ambulances, left burned and twisted out of shape, after being attacked.
Along with the fighting came the dispossessed, thousands from the east of the tiny enclave joining the 50,000 who had already sought refuge elsewhere. All the UN shelters, mostly schools, have been full to overflowing for days, but they still, somehow, have to fit in more in the days to come. With the human toll from Shuja’iya mounting, the two sides agreed to a ceasefire requested by the International Committee of the Red Cross for cessation of hostilities for two hours. It was broken after 48 minutes with sporadic machine-gun fire, for which the Israelis blamed the Palestinians. They responded with airstrikes, but then agreed to extend the period by two more hours.
Shuja’iya had been hammered, with not one building left undamaged in many of the streets. The Independent had met Rafiq al-Naizi, 65, three days ago, half an hour after his house had been hit by a missile. He had four minutes, after a telephone warning from the Israeli military, to evacuate his household of 15 people and had just managed it. The damaged house would be repaired, he vowed, he and his family would not leave. We discovered yesterday that the house has been hit again, along with the one next to it. Further down the street, neighbours frantically gathering what belongings they could to get away during the lull in violence said that some of the Naizis had left to find a shelter, but others had stayed behind.
Some of the attacks were targeted. Among the dead was Osama al-Hayya, the son of Khalil al-Hayya, a Hamas leader, his wife and two children. Craters gouged into a stretch of waste ground appeared to be aimed at tunnels used by militants to launch rockets into Israel.
The Alwan family, however, demanded that the Israeli military show why they attacked their home, killing two little boys. Three brothers were in the kitchen of their apartment at al-Tofah when it was hit by a tank shell. Qassem, three, and Imad, six, were killed; Abdullah, 14, survived with leg injuries.
Ambulances could not get to their street – not allowed in by the Israelis, claim the residents – and after waiting for 45 minutes they took the three brothers by car to where Palestinian medics and their vehicles had been stopped.
“Imad had died instantly, Qassem was alive but bleeding heavily. He died during those 45 minutes we were waiting,” said an older brother, Mohammed, 19, at the bedside of Abdullah, in the Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.
“They had dropped leaflets from the air a few days ago, but most of the families stayed because we were not involved in anything that should make them attack us. We need an answer from them, why they attack civilians. They have done this in the past and they are doing it now.”
Nayaf al-Qassas, watching over his grandson at the hospital, was desperate for peace. “I have other relations, grandchildren, who are still in great danger, still in Shuja’iya. We are surrounded by fear. If no one is killed by the end of a day, we think we are very lucky.”