RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — The evacuation warning came shortly after dark. The Israeli military fired the shot just a short distance from Nasser Abu Quta’s home in the southern Gaza Strip, a precautionary measure meant to allow people to evacuate before airstrikes.
Abu Quta, 57, thought he and his extended family would be safe some hundred meters (yards) away from the house that was alerted to the pending strike. He huddled with his relatives on the ground floor of his four-story building, bracing for an impact in the area.
But the house of Abu Quta’s neighbor was never hit. In an instant, an explosion ripped through his own home, wiping out 19 members of his family, including his wife and cousins, he said. The airstrike also killed five of his neighbors who were standing outside in the jam-packed refugee camp, a jumble of buildings and alleyways.
The airstrike in Rafah, a southern town on the border with Egypt, came as Israeli forces intensified their bombardment of targets in the Gaza Strip following a big, multi-front attack by Hamas militants Saturday that had killed over 700 people in Israel by Sunday night. Hamas also took dozens of Israelis hostage and fired thousands of rockets toward Israeli population centers, although most were intercepted by the country’s Iron Dome defense system.
So far, the waves of airstrikes had killed over 400 Palestinians, including dozens of women and children, health officials reported Sunday. There appeared to be several similar deadly airstrikes on crowded residential buildings.
The Israeli military said late Saturday that it had struck various Hamas offices and command centers in multi-story buildings.
But Abu Quta doesn’t understand why Israel struck his house. There were no militants in his building, he insisted, and his family was not warned. They would not have stayed in their house if they were, added his relative, Khalid.
“This is a safe house, with children and women,” Abu Quta, still shell-shocked, said as he recalled the tragedy in fragments of detail.
“Dust overwhelmed the house. There were screams,” he said. “There were no walls. It was all open.”
The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the strike on Abu Quta’s home.
The army says that it conducts precision strikes aimed at militant commanders or operation sites and that it does not target civilians. It also points to its adversaries’ practice of embedding militants in civilian areas throughout the impoverished coastal enclave of 2.3 million people, which is under a under a severe land, air and sea blockade by Israel and Egypt.
But human rights groups have previously said that Israel’s pattern of deadly attacks on residential homes display a disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians and argued they may amount to war crimes.
In past wars and rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas militants, individual Israeli airstrikes have killed great numbers of civilians — for instance, 22 members of the same family in a single strike in a bloody 2021 war.
Abu Quta was gripped by grief Sunday as he prepared for the rush of burials with his two dozen other surviving relatives, including wounded children and grandchildren. Many corpses pulled out from under the rubble were charred and mangled, he said.
While he managed to identify the bodies of 14 family members, at least four children’s bodies remained in the morgue, unrecognizable. One body was missing.
“Maybe we’ll put them tomorrow in a single grave,” he said. “May they rest in peace.”