More than two years after the 2014 war, displaced citizens are still struggling to survive.
Shujayea, Gaza City – With shells falling every few seconds, the streets of Shujayea were packed with dead bodies as residents attempted to escape the massacre on the evening of July 19, 2014.
Israeli F-16s, tanks and mortar fire attacked the neighbourhood while dozens of one-tonne bombs razed the area until late afternoon the next day. It has been estimated that 72 Palestinians were killed.
The massacre was part of the Israeli army’s 2014 military offensive on the Gaza Strip, which killed more than 2,000 Palestinians and injured thousands more. Shujayea, one of the most densely populated areas of Gaza, was hit especially hard.
A United Nations commission concluded in 2015 that the Israeli army deliberately targeted civilians in their homes, with “strong indications” of a war crime. However, according to the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, “three years after the 51-day war on Gaza, no measures have been taken by the United Nations or other bodies to hold the government of Israel to account”.
Al Jazeera spoke with three families who lost family members in the Shujayea massacre, discussing what they witnessed in the summer of 2014 and how they have tried to rebuild their lives in the ensuing years.
“I only have one demand: I want to meet the killer,” Amina Shamaly said, sighing heavily in the living room of her rebuilt home.
“I want to meet with the killer who shot my son to ask him … Why? Why did you kill him? Don’t you have a mother, a father, a brother? Why did you kill him? You shot him once in the leg; why did you finish him? He didn’t make an attempt to harm you, didn’t shoot you; he was an innocent civilian, walking. So why did you do that?”
It has been three years since Khalil and Amina Shamaly found out through a viral YouTube video that their 22-year-old unarmed son, Salem, had been shot dead by an Israeli sniper during a ceasefire – but the pain has not eased one bit for the family.
The family believed they had strong evidence for a war-crimes prosecution; their cousin, Mohammad al-Qattawi, met a UN investigator shortly after Salem’s murder to launch a case. Three years later, they still have not heard back.
“The UN made a lot of promises, but they did nothing,” Qattawi said.
During the ceasefire in the afternoon of July 20, Salem returned to his destroyed neighbourhood in Shujayea, searching for his missing cousins. He knew they had not evacuated the area and was worried they might have been killed.
A group of international activists met Salem along the way and accompanied him. They later disseminated the video of his killing.
“Muhammad, Munir, Mazen!” Salem shouted, calling out his cousins’ names as he made his way through the pile of rubble. In the process, he unknowingly stepped across an imaginary red line drawn by the Israeli army and into a kill-free zone, according to testimonies by Israeli soldiers collected by Israeli military researcher Eran Efrati.
“Under the pretext of the so-called ‘security threat’ soldiers were directed to carry out a preplanned attack of revenge on Palestinian civilians” for losing their fellow soldiers, Efrati wrote.
In the video, a sniper shot is heard, and Salem falls to the ground, shot in the leg. As he struggles to get up, he is shot again in the chest. The third shot to his neck kills him.
Salem’s body lay amid the rubble for six days, as no one was willing to approach him for fear being attacked.
It was a shock for the family to discover Salem’s fate through the notorious video. Salem’s siblings suffered from nightmares and took medication to overcome their post-traumatic stress disorder. The family remains traumatised.
“May Allah accept him as a martyr,” Khalil said in a soft voice, his fingers trembling. “Israel and the international community is responsible for his death … I demand justice for all Palestinians, not just for my son.”
As his voice starts to crack, Khalil’s brother, Faraj, speaks up.
“There’s no other occupied people in the world except for Palestinians,” Faraj said. “Countries and institutions around the world brag about freedom and democracy, but they’ve forgotten about Gaza and Palestine. They say we deserve this damage and deserve occupation and that this is not our land. Why? Are we not humans? The free world accepts this aggression committed against us. “
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights filed a case for compensation in Israeli courts, which is still pending. But according to human rights lawyer Khalil Alwazir, the case will be dropped, as Israeli law dictates that any lawsuit regarding an incident that occurred during military operations in an enemy entity, such as Gaza, is inadmissible.
“I’m burning inside,” Amina said, distraught. “Only God can bring justice – only God.”
By all odds, Naser Shamaly should have died.
An Israeli soldier shot him and his family members in his living room from three metres away; Naser was the only one to survive. He made it to al-Shifa hospital on his own, after bleeding for three days.
“This is normal for me,” said Naser, 60, sitting outside of his house. “In normal conditions, you wouldn’t accept [the massacre of your family members], but during wartime, you’re traumatised. The war reduced the shock for me; I wasn’t aware of the size of my loss.”
On the evening of July 19, Naser was in his house in eastern Shujayea, about 500 metres from the Israeli border. Joining him was his brother Muhammad, 63; sister-in-law Hamdiya, 60; and nephews Issam, 28, and Arafat, 25. Naser’s wife and children had already moved to their other apartment, about a half-kilometre west towards the city.
“We were sitting inside my home. The whole place was besieged; there was no place to run away or hide,” Naser said. “Israeli soldiers – there were about six of them – arrived at the back of the house and started pounding at the wall with large hammers. Once they demolished the wall and stepped inside, we all stood up and put our hands up immediately, but it didn’t matter; the soldier shot all of us instantly.
“The soldier was three metres away from me; I was the first one to get shot,” he added. “He aimed for my chest but shot me in the arm. I hit the floor and faked my death. He shot dead the rest of my family; I was the only one to survive. The soldiers searched the house, didn’t find anything and left.”
Having nowhere else to go amid heavy bombardment, and with all traffic – including ambulances – unable to enter Shujayea, Naser stayed in his house for three days, using only headscarves to stem the bleeding.
“On Wednesday morning, an Israeli bulldozer came to raze the house. I was still inside, waiting for my death. I had two choices – either to die from a gunshot or by a bulldozer,” he said. “I chose gunshot. The bulldozer was at the back of my house, so I stepped out the front door and started walking westwards. Luckily, no one saw me.”
By the time he reached the Shifa hospital, his arm was barely attached. He was overjoyed when doctors said it could be saved.
Naser explained that living in a place such as Gaza, his strong belief in God is the only thing that helps him to move forward.
“If God wants something to happen, it will happen. It’s God’s will,” he said.
“My injury didn’t happen in vain; I will get something in return,” Naser added. “My injury will be added to other injuries until the day of liberation. The Palestinian cause is just.”
Sana al-Areer is at peace when she is with her five grandchildren. Although she lost her son, Fathi, in the Shujayea massacre, his daughter, Dana, born five months after his death, has made it a little easier for her to cope with her loss.
“Dana reminds me of my son. [My loss] is something that I live with every day; it’s not something I can forget,” Sana said while holding Dana in her lap. “We live with the hope that the children will get a proper education.”
Sana’s eldest son, Muhammad, came back to their home after the bombing of Shujayea to discover that his younger brother, 20-year-old Fathi, and two of his uncles had been shot dead. The family found bullet casings next to the decomposing bodies in their garage.
“We’re still in shock. We think it’s a nightmare that we’re going to wake up from eventually,” Muhammad said.
On the evening of July 19, Sana begged her husband, Sami, and Fathi to leave Shujayea and move with the rest of the family to her parents’ house, but they refused.
“After Iftar that night, the bombardments were intense everywhere. There was artillery, F-16s, everything; it was so intense. We witnessed nothing like that before, since the beginning of this war and in previous wars,” Sana said.
At 11pm, Sami, 50, called his family to say that he was injured in the stomach and leg and needed help – but at that point, vehicles were already blocked from entering Shujayea. The family called all the contacts they had, but the area was unreachable.
They lost contact with Sami around 3am. He set out to their neighbourhood mosque to make a phone call when a missile hit. Eight days later, during the ceasefire, locals found his body on the street.
His brothers, Hasan and Abdel Karim, and his son were also injured by the missile but survived until Israeli ground troops arrived and started breaking into peoples’ homes. They were then shot dead in the garage. Hasan was mentally disabled, Sana said.
Since the end of the 2014 offensive, Sana has been protesting in front of the International Committee of the Red Cross every week with other families, demanding financial compensation from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. With her husband gone and all four of her sons unemployed, her struggle is a financial one.
“There’s no income to live; there’s no help from organisations; there’s no one to talk to,” Sana said.
Finally, two weeks ago, a lawyer responded and said he would launch a lawsuit for financial compensation for affected families. The lawyer takes 200 shekels ($56) for each person killed, but he agreed to take only 300 shekels for Sami and Fathi, considering their financial situation, Sana said. Now, they just have to wait.
“If this is God’s will, I just need to be patient,” Sana said. “This is our fate, and we have to live with it.”