The attacks are occurring on a scale not seen in years of conflict between Israel and Hamas, hitting residential areas, schools, hospitals, mosques and churches, even areas in southern Gaza where Israeli forces have ordered civilians to flee.
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Israel says the aim of the war is to destroy Hamas after the militant group’s deadly Oct. 7 attack in southern Israel that killed at least 1,200 people, and claims the strikes are targeting the militants’ operatives and their infrastructure.
Israel blames Hamas for the high death toll — more than 11,000 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, saying the group threatens civilians by operating among the population and in tunnels under civilian areas. Israel says Hamas fighters are among the dead.
But the scale of the destruction and loss of life in Gaza, with entire families wiped out in one strike, has raised troubling questions about Israel’s military tactics.
The lost generations
On the night the explosion hit his family’s home in the Gaza Strip, Ahmed al-Nauk was more than 3,000 kilometers away in London. He called a friend who told him the following:
– Airstrike. They were all killed.
It will take many hours of horror and chaos before the truth settles like the ashes of the October 20 explosion that leveled the home of Al Nauk’s family: 21 of his relatives were killed.
Among them were his 75-year-old father, two brothers, three sisters and their 13 children.
– I can’t believe that this really happened. Because if I calculate what it means, I will be destroyed – said Al Nauk.
His father, Nasri, recently told him that his sister Aya’s home had been destroyed in northern Gaza and that she was staying with them in the central city of Deir al-Balah, south of the area where Israel had ordered Palestinians to go.
The home can be rebuilt, Al Nauk said then, all that matters is that she and the children are alive.
But just a few hours later, they were all dead.
Nine of the 21 murdered family members are still under the rubble; severe fuel shortages prevented civil defense crews from excavating them.
Identifying the dead was another traumatic endeavor; many bodies were unrecognizable, most were in pieces.
Al-Nauk’s sister Doa, who was not in the house at the time of the strike, told him she could not stand the smell of the rotting flesh of their loved ones under the rubble. Someone showed her body parts taken from the site and told her it was one of their sisters.
One of al Nauk’s 11-year-old niece was taken to hospital with severe burns, but died there, as doctors gave her intensive care bed to another patient who had a better chance of survival.
Doctors are forced to leave many seriously wounded people to die, because they don’t have beds, medical equipment, medicines, fuel…
Israel: We are targeting Hamas!
Israel does not say how it selects targets in densely populated Gaza. But Israeli officials say many of the home strikes are based on intelligence estimates that Hamas operatives are wanted inside.
While providing few details, Israel says each airstrike is reviewed by legal experts to ensure it complies with international law.
Many families in Gaza deny that any Hamas members were operating from their homes.
The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza does not distinguish between civilians and Hamas fighters, but says most of the Palestinians killed were minors and women, about 4,500 and 2,200 respectively.
At least 304 families lost at least 10 relatives; about 30 families lost more than 30, according to a report from the Ministry of Health dated November 6.
That number is likely higher now as intense Israeli bombardment continues.
Among the families with the highest number of victims, there are many children.
The Al Astal family lost 89 relatives, 18 of whom were children under the age of 10, including three babies who were not yet a year old, according to a ministry report dated October 26. The Hassun family had 74 killed, including 22 children between the ages of 1 and 10, the statement said.
The Najjars lost 65 relatives: nine were under the age of 10, and 13 were under the age of 4.
Amar al-Buta says all his relatives were civilians not affiliated with Hamas. He lost 16 of them.
The Sakalah family, his relatives known for their candy shops in Gaza City, took shelter with al-Buta’s family in their four-story house in Khan Yunis, southern Gaza, heeding Israeli evacuation orders.
Ten days later, everyone was dead – from 69-year-old Nadja to baby Asad, who was not even a year old.
The question Al Nauk left in his family’s WhatsApp group the night the explosion leveled their home — “Tell me, how are you?” — remains unanswered.
The distance made the devastating news seem even more surreal. He has no idea where the bodies of his relatives are buried. There was no place to store them in the hospital morgue. They could be in a mass grave, but Al Nauk can’t find out.
Al Buta said the Sakalah family was buried in his family tomb in Khan Yunis. The whole region mourned when they were buried.
– Our eyes are dry. No more tears – he said.
In the chaos of war, keeping track of the dead is a hectic, heartbreaking process.
It begins with relatives scribbling the names of the dead and missing. They dig through the ruins with their hands, calling out for survivors. Hospitals issue death certificates later.
The grieving relatives, who claim that no one in their household had anything to do with Hamas, ask: Why them?
– Why would they kill children and an old man? What is the military justification for bombing my house? They were all civilians. I wish one day I could meet whoever pulled the trigger. I want to ask him: Why did you do that? Al Nauk asked.