Israel-Gaza conflict: Civilian casualties in Gaza tell stories of death and heartbreak

The latest Israeli offensive saw troops crossing the border, supported by tanks, Apache helicopter-gunships and warplanes

Khan Younis

Mohammed Abu Tair was carrying his little daughter out of a burning house when the second missile struck, throwing four-month-old Hala out of his arms. He tried to cling on to her desperately, but felt himself falling and then lost consciousness.

The victims of that attack, from the same extended family, were at the Nasser Hospital at Khan Younis today. Mr Tair had severe injuries to his face, eyes and chest; his father-in-law, the owner of the house, Ismail Abu Zarif Zarifa was killed in the blast. Hala, a tiny figure, was in a specialist unit, with third-degree burns across her body, her 23-year-old mother, Hana, weeping over her. Also there was Mohammed’s brother Diya, 24, in another ward, with shrapnel wounds from a separate strike a few hours later.

They were among the latest casualties of the bloody conflict in Gaza when the Israeli military launched a fierce offensive on Khan Younis with troops coming across the border, supported by tanks, Apache helicopter-gunships and warplanes.

One specific target was the home of Mohammed Deif, the head of the Qassem Brigade, the military wing of Hamas, and one of those who had been planning the urban guerilla war being carried out against the Israeli forces as well as the campaign of rocket launches from Gaza across the frontier. The commander, who is partially paralysed and wheelchair-bound, had survived two other attempts at targeted killings. This time, too, he managed to escape. Two people, believed to be his relations, were killed. 

The Khan Younis assault mirrored one carried out on another district, Shujayia, in which more than 80 Palestinians and six Israeli soldiers were killed. A seventh, Sergeant Oron Shaul is missing; Hamas claims it has captured him.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters were dug in at Khan Younis, using rocket propelled grenade launchers, light mortars and Kalashnikovs. The bodies of around 10 of them, wearing black body armour, have been brought out of areas of heaviest combat, Khozaa, Abasan and Algagra.

Flashes from explosions and plumes of smokes rose out of the villages. Ambulances could not reach civilians, many of them wounded, trapped inside their homes. Relations and neighbours  carried out some of them to the points where paramedics had been able to reach. Some residents were too frightened to leave their homes or even use their mobile phones because they were worried about the reactions of Israeli soldiers working their way across roofs trying to flush out militants.

Two men who ran across a field to an ambulance claimed that there had been Israeli casualties. “The resistance are ambushing them, they are well prepared. The Israelis are using helicopters, firing into buildings to try to kill the resistance. But these buildings are empty,” said one of them, who would only give his first name, Khalid, and insisted he had nothing to do with Hamas. “Look, I am not carrying a gun” , he said spreading his hands.

Mr Tair had gone with his family from Abasan to Khozza for Iftar, the breaking of the fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Tuesday evening. “The bombing started and it was too dangerous to travel. So we spent the night there, we thought it was a safe place. In the morning we heard a plane overhead, an F-16, and it hit the house with a rocket. I grabbed my daughter and started running, she is our only child. Then there was very loud explosion, I fell and passed out. I have been told what has been done to Hala; of course, I feel terrible, I feel very angry. My wife is in shock, she can’t even speak.”

Mr Tair’s brother, Diya, was walking along Abasan when, he said, a helicopter opened fire scattering those below. Injured, he tried to crawl to safety along a wall, but was hit by a another round. “They could see he was already hurt, but they still fired at him, why?” their father, Ali Abu Tair, demanded. “Are we just animals to be slaughtered?”

Mohammad Awad Samar was killed by missiles fired from a field at the edges of Khan Younis. Around the same time, Khalid al-Zain, 18, ran back towards a mosque on hearing an explosion to check on his father whom he had left there praying. There was another blast which sent him flying back and left him with leg injuries.

A stream of families was trying to get away from the clashes. One group of nine, leaving al-Quraia, had three women waving white cloths tied to broom handles. “We are hoping that the Israelis see the flags and also see that it is women carrying them” said 38-year-old Issan Abu Hajjaj.

Those who had reached Khan Younis centre had packed into a UN shelter, a school, around 50 to a classroom. They were mostly women and children. Alia al-Najjar, 29, was worried about her 38-year-old husband, Mohammed, and two brothers, Talat, 26, and Talal, 30, back at the family home in Khozza. “We did not really think the Israelis would carry out a big attack, so the men said that we should go and they would stay behind,” she said. “But we saw tanks and they fired some bombs with gas, everyone was choking, we had to leave with the children as quickly as possible. The men could not get out then.

“We have spoken to them on the phone, and they are all right. But they don’t want the phone to ring and they have to speak in whispers, they can hear soldiers on the roof.”

Like many civilians who have become victims, Mohammed Abu Tair wanted to know why. “None of our family have anything to do with politics, let alone fighting. If the Israelis have any proof that is not the case, let them show it. Why are we guilty? Why is my little daughter guilty?”

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