Gaza City – After more than 12 hours of work, the bulldozers were still clearing what was once the al-Batsh family’s three-story house in eastern Gaza City, reduced to rubble after Israeli warplanes hit it with two bombs.
The air strike took place just before midnight on Saturday, the fifth day of Israel’s aerial assault on Gaza. Eighteen people from the same extended family were killed, the highest death toll in a single attack so far in the offensive, which has claimed more than 165 Palestinian lives to date.
The bombing in the Shaaf neighbourhood was said to be targeting the local police commander, Tayseer al-Batsh, who survived the strike with serious injuries. Shortly after the house was destroyed, Israel also struck several police and security posts in Gaza City.
“There was no reason to hit the house,” said Mohammed al-Batsh, a lawyer in his 30s, as dozens of people gathered to inspect the home and examine the severe damage to nearby houses.
He added that the airstrike killed Majed al-Batsh, the police commander’s cousin, and 10 members of his family – parents, children, daughters-in-laws and grandchildren. “They posed no threat to Israel. They were not firing rockets. They were civilians, children and women.”
Tayseer, the police chief, was visiting his cousin Majed when the air strike occurred. The eight other victims were from surrounding houses, which had their exterior walls destroyed by the force of the blast.
The entire block sustained damage; the blast uprooted palm trees and downed electricity cables. The alley leading to the house was covered in broken glass from the windows. “Five of the dead have no bodies; they were turned into pieces that spread 150 metres away,” Mohammed added.
They posed no threat to Israel. They were not firing rockets. They were civilians, children and women.
An Israeli army spokesperson told Al Jazeera on Monday morning that she was looking into the bombing, but had no concrete details.
Meanwhile, in his weekly address to the Israeli cabinet on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Hamas for civilian casualties in Gaza. “The leadership of Hamas and the other organisations has chosen – at a time when they are using the population of Gaza as human shields – to hide under ground, to flee abroad and to deliberately put civilians in the line of fire.”
As noon prayers approached on Sunday, a group of men sat in the shadow of a school wall. The men had prepared 18 graves in the patch of land – which belongs to the Waqf Ministry – between the school and the house. “We can’t go to the cemetery because it’s close to the border,” said one of the men, sitting on a pile of sand. “It’s dangerous, the Israelis target the gatherings,” he added.
The man, also related to the al-Batsh family, said there is no safe place in Gaza, including the cemetery, on the outskirts of the city.
|Many Palestinian families fled northern Gaza on carts, fearing an Israeli ground invasion and increased air strikes [Reuters]|
The families were worried of an Israeli ground incursion, similar to what happened during Israel’s 2008-2009 offensive.
On Sunday, Israel told residents of the north Gaza town of Beit Lahiya to leave their homes. At dawn that same day, hundreds of families in the northern Gaza Strip evacuated their houses and made their way to temporary housing shelters: schools run by the United Nations in the heart of Gaza City.
Adnan Abu Hassna, spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), said that the agency has turned eight of its schools into temporary shelters.
At least 16,000 Palestinians have now sought refuge in UN schools, according to UN figures.
A supervisor in one of these shelters, who didn’t give Al Jazeera her name, said that about 80 families had moved into the centre. Among these families was Mohammed al-Sultan, 26, who was sharing a classroom with his wife, two daughters, and about 30 other siblings and relatives.
“We fled this morning on our donkey cart,” said Mohammed, holding his 17-month-old baby, Leen. “We received the warnings on mobiles and from leaflets.” He said the family had no time to bring everything they needed.
Though the Interior Ministry asked people not to respond to the Israeli evacuation calls, considering them psychological warfare, Mohammed has a different opinion.
“Nobody loves to spend the time in this shelter, it’s miserable,” he said, “but we are afraid for our lives, [and for] our children’s lives”.