Figures from the UN and local human rights organisations show that at least 59 Palestinian families suffered multiple casualties during the Israeli bombardment
Harriet Sherwoodin Gaza
At least 59 Palestinian families suffered multiple casualties over four weeks of Israeli bombardment in Gaza, according to data collated by the Guardian. The youngest casualty was 10-day old Hala Abu Madi, who died on 2 August; the oldest was Abdel al-Masri, aged 97, who was killed on 3 August.
The figures are based on data from three independent Palestinian human rights organisations – the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) and Al Mezan, both based in Gaza, and the West Bank-based Al-Haq; the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem; and the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
However, it is almost certainly an incomplete picture. Systematic identification of bodies and logging of data have been hampered by the sheer scale of the casualties in Gaza – about 2,000 killed in total, and 10,000 wounded – types of injuries, and the need for swift burial.
Among families in which four or more people died, 479 people were killed in total, including 212 children under the age of 18, and 15 people aged 60 and over. The deadliest day was 30 July, when 95 members of 10 families were killed. On 20 July, 65 members of 10 families died, and on 21 July, 71 members of six families were killed.
The Guardian has interviewed six families who suffered multiple casualties. In each case, relatives say there was no warning of attack, and all deny any connection with militant organisations in Gaza.
However, in many cases there may have been a military target among the dead. But the number of women and children killed in such attacks has led human rights organisations and international observers to question whether Israel’s use of force was proportionate and in keeping with the obligation under international law to protect civilians in war.
Hamdi Shaqqura, of the PCHR, said: “What has been significant about this onslaught is the deliberate attacks on families – whole families have been smashed under the rubble. We have documented 134 families, in which two or more members have been hit by Israeli forces – a total of 750 people.
“No justification can be accepted in targeting civilians, even if there is a security threat [in the vicinity]. Israel’s excessive use of force is contrary to international law on two counts – the principle of distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants, and the principle of proportionality, under which attacks must be proportionate to threat.”
The Israel Defence Forces did not respond to questions specifically about the six families interviewed by the Guardian. However, in a general statement it said: “As an absolute rule, the IDF never targets civilians, under any circumstance. On the contrary, the IDF takes globally unprecedented steps to limit civilian harm, despite fighting a terrorist organisation that exploits its civilians as human shields and callously embeds its terror infrastructure within the urban environment, including in schools, homes, hospitals and mosques.
“While Hamas indiscriminately targets Israelis, the IDF considers any civilian loss deeply tragic and regrettable and it goes without saying that the IDF categorically and emphatically rejects in the strongest terms any assertion of targeting families. Indeed, tactics such as the ‘knock on roof’ warning procedure are specifically designed to prevent harming civilians whilst striking legitimate and dangerous terror targets that pose an imminent threat to the security of the state of Israel. Over the course of this operation the IDF made over 400,000 warnings in its attempt to limit civilian casualties.”
16 July, Gaza City: Al-Bakr family, four dead
It was one of the most shocking moments of the Gaza war: four boys killed while playing on a beach. As well as the deaths of Ismail, 10, Ehad, 9, Zakaria, 10 and Mohamed, 11, several other children were injured. The event was witnessed by international journalists at a nearby hotel.
Mohamed Bakr, Ismail’s father, said his son had quit school to earn money serving tea to fishermen at the port. But a combination of war and Ramadan meant there were no fishermen, and no tea to serve. Instead the child – one of 10 siblings – went to play on the beach with some cousins.
“I was sleeping when some nephews ran to tell us the TV news said four children had been killed on the beach. I was counting my children, and shouting ‘where is Ismail?’” Mohamed rushed to al-Shifa hospital and found Ismail in the morgue. “Part of his brain was outside his head and his back was burnt. But there were only small marks on his face. It was chaos in the morgue and I thought only my son was dead. But then I saw my brothers screaming.”
Some of Ismail’s siblings had reached the morgue before their father. “They saw him. All the children are afraid to go outside now.”
Twelve-year-old Sayed, the brother of one of the dead boys, also called Mohamed, was on the beach. Despite injuries, he ran home, screaming that his brother had been killed. “I didn’t believe him,” said the boys’ mother, Salwa. “Why were they targeted? Did they have weapons? They were playing.”
Sayed is now deeply traumatised, but has had no psychological help. “I don’t want Jewish mothers to feel the pain I feel,” said Salwa. “I don’t know what they are thinking.”
19 July, Beit Hanoun: Abu Jarad family, eight dead
The Abu Jarads had just finished iftar, the meal that breaks the daily Ramadan fast, when two shells ripped into the building that was home to the large extended family.
One shell hit the flat of Alian Abu Jarad, 62, then a second blasted into his nephew’s home. In the black chaos that ensued, Alian rushed out of his house and scrambled up the stairs to find a scene of horror. Three adults, three infants and two teenage girls had been torn to pieces.
Alian pulled the limp, bloody corpse of five-month old Moussa from the rubble and staggered down the stairs with the dead baby in his arms. “All the neighbours came to help,” he later said, standing amid rubble. A pair of child-sized jogging pants, a pillow, shredded curtains and scraps of paper poked out from lumps of masonry and jagged shrapnel in the first-floor room. “There was no warning,” said Alian; no leaflets were dropped telling the families to evacuate the neighbourhood, no phone calls or text messages were received.
“Suddenly – boom,” he said. “There are no fighters here. No one is connected to any political faction. We have a brick factory – we are only concerned with our business. We are civilians. I never thought we’d face this. But now we have to deal with it. What else is there to do?”
His brother, Issa, added: “Palestinian people are not terrorists and criminals. We just want freedom and dignity.”
After the shelling, the homeless family scattered to five different UN shelters. Alian did not know if they would rebuild the property, which overlooks the family orchards of citrus and olive trees. “For now, we don’t want to come back,” he said.
21 July, Rafah: Siyyam family, 11 dead
Nabil Siyyam, 33, wept as he recalled the morning he lost his wife and four children, along with his left arm. A fifth child was in a critical condition in an Egyptian hospital. Nabil pulled up his shirt to reveal shrapnel wounds over his torso.
At 6am, there were several air strikes near the house, and the family decided to leave, fearing their home was at risk. Grandparents Mahrous and Dalal quickly rounded up the extended family and herded them into the road. Two drone missiles hit the group, killing 11 and injuring nine.
“The air was full of dust, I couldn’t see anything,” said Nabil. “I felt my arm hanging by skin, and I was bleeding from the chest.” When the air cleared, “I saw my daughter cut into two. I saw my baby thrown 10 metres from her mother. The drones were still in the sky.”
He said there was no warning and no reason for the strike. “They have the technology to watch us – they could see there were women and children.”
From a deep pocket in his robe, Mahrous pulled a handwritten list of the names, birth dates and identity numbers of those killed. At 67, he and Dalal have become substitute parents for baby Mayar, who was in a cast from her armpits to her toes and had lost her mother, father and siblings.
Four more members of the Siyyam family were killed in a separate air strike the following day.
21 July, Gaza City: Al-Qassas family, nine dead
Shadia al-Qassas took a crumpled photograph out of her bag, all she had left as mementoes of her two daughters. Lamiya, 13, and Nisma, 12, were killed along with seven other members of the family as they prepared pizza on the balcony of a relative’s house.
Shadia, her husband and seven children had left their own home after Israeli troops dropped leaflets in the neighbourhood, warning residents to evacuate ahead of the ground invasion of Gaza. They trudged through the streets to what they believed was a safer area; at about 4pm the next day their new home was shelled.
“There were 30 people in the house when it was hit,” she said, wiping away tears with the corner of her hijab. “I saw my daughters brought out on stretchers. They were cut into pieces. We couldn’t recognise their face, just their clothes. We buried nine bodies in one grave because we couldn’t separate the pieces.”
Her five surviving younger children “talk about their sisters all the time. They always want to be close to us; they freak out every time they hear a boom.”
She describes Lamiya and Nisma as “very sweet, they liked school and helped me in the house with the younger ones.” Lamiya wanted to be a teacher, and Nisma a hairdresser, she said.
“I don’t know why the house was hit. My father is old, my brothers drive trucks.” Her husband, Iyad, has a cart selling liver sandwiches.
Israel, she said, did not care about killing children. “Most of the dead in this war are civilians – children and women.”
On the heavily damaged top floor of the house, a relative points to the spot where the girls were squatting, kneading dough for pizza. His wife and four daughters were also among the dead.
23 July, Khan Younis: Abu Jame family, 26 dead
Bassem Abu Jame had just sat down to eat with his pregnant wife, Yasmin, and their three young children – Batol, four, Suhaila, three, and 18-month-old Besan – when the extended family’s six-flat home was pulverised in an air strike.
“I had one mouthful, and the explosion came before the second,” he said, standing on crutches amid the ruins. “I hit a wall and lost consciousness. I woke up the next day with no idea what had happened to my wife and children.”
They were dead, along with two dozen others including his mother – 26 people in total. Three people survived the blast: Bassem, whose leg was broken in three places, his brother Hussein, and a three-year-old nephew.
He said there was no warning, and he had no idea why the house was targeted. One of the dead was reported to be a Hamas-employed policeman, but Bassem insisted that he and his brothers were vegetable-sellers. “We are not affiliated with any faction,” he said.
As well as his immediate family, Bassem said he had lost everything he owned, including photographs of his loved ones. “All my documents, my identity papers, money, pictures – it’s all gone,” he said gesturing towards a huge crater left by the blast.
“We will never recover from this. It’s like a wound – it might heal, but the scar will be there for ever.”
26 July, Khan Younis: Al-Najjar family, 38 dead (in total)
Before this war, the Najjar family was one of the biggest in Khan Younis, with several branches spread across homes in the area. But in four separate strikes, their number has been reduced by 38. At one attack, on 26 July, seven members of the family, including two children aged three and two, were killed in a huge blast in the middle of the night. “I was sleeping when the explosion came,” said Salah al-Najjar. Clambering over broken glass and fallen masonry to reach his brother’s house next door, Salah heard his nephew calling for help. “I couldn’t see him because of the dust and the dark.”
Other relatives rushed to help. “It took us two hours working with our hands to get three survivors out,” he said. “The fourth was very deep down. He had to wait until the bulldozer came.”
Salah said there was no warning. “If there had been, we would have left. Our neighbourhood is very quiet. We are farmers. Nothing happens here – usually.” Asked why he thought the house had been targeted, he said: “This is the question we need an answer to. Please tell us.”
In an adjacent house, Nafisa al-Najjar, 45, who survived the blast, was wrapped in a blue-checked cloth on a narrow bed. In the moments following the explosion, she could feel the building collapsing around her and feared being buried alive. Her pelvis and several ribs were broken.
Nafisa’s 10-year-old daughter Nama’a, who escaped with barely a bruise, was crouched at the bedside. “Her cousins ask her to go out and play, but she wants to stay near me all the time,” said Nafisa.
“I’m really shocked that we were targeted. Relatives wanted to come to our house because they thought it was safe. What are my husband and children guilty of?”