His father was very worried About his son and told him to return home immediately. Their village, Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip, was being bombarded from the air. There were thunderous booms as the missiles struck, but Mohammad Abu el-Jedian was delayed while visiting relatives in the Jabalya refugee camp. When he finally arrived home, he ran into a neighbor and began to climb the stairs to the family’s fifth-floor apartment. When he reached the third floor, however, he suddenly saw through the stairwell window a dark object approaching the building with frightening speed: a missile that wreaked havoc on the top floors of the building.
The blast wave hurled Abu el-Jedian back to the second floor. After he got back on his feet, he discovered that the fourth and fifth floors had been totally demolished. He would later find the body of his younger brother in the ruins of their apartment, and the bodies of his neighbors on the street. A full day would go by before he would find the remains of his parents’ bodies in the rubble of the adjacent residential high-rise, where they had been flung by the force of the blast. It would take him another two weeks to find all their body parts among the ruins.
Abu el-Jedian’s life was virtually destroyed on May 5, the day he lost his parents and his brother and became homeless.
One evening last week we spoke at length via Skype. He was in the home of his cousin Mahmoud al-Najar, a dentist, in the Karameh Towers neighborhood in the northern part of Gaza City; he’s been invited to stay there until he finds a new home. It’s a renovated apartment, with an open-plan kitchen, a wall covered with ceramic tiles, and a row of sandals at the entrance. With Abu el-Jedian in the living room were two field researchers of the Israel human rights organization B’Tselem, Olfat al-Kurd and Khaled al-Azayeh, who are investigating the incident and who organized this video interview.
To look at Abu el-Jedian, 26, you’d never know that he endured a disaster on this scale. He smiles a lot and relates what befell him just a few weeks earlier as if it happened to someone else. He admits that he has not yet fully grasped his tragedy. He’s a muscular, sturdy young man, wearing a polo shirt, without a past – he went to school only until the 11th grade and didn’t have a job – without a present, and without a future. Such is life in Gaza.
According to a B’Tselem report published last week, in the round of fighting during the first week in May, four Israeli civilians and 25 Palestinians were killed, 13 of them noncombatants unaffiliated with any military organization. Of the Gaza dead, three were women, one in late pregnancy, and also a baby and a child. Three families had multiple victims. The report accuses Israel of deliberately attacking residential buildings in the Strip. Sheikh Zayad Towers, the housing complex in which Abu el-Jedian and his family lived in Beit Lahia, was one of them.
El-Jedian’s father, Atiya, was 48, his mother, Rarda, was 46, and his brother, Abd al-Rahman, was 12. All of them are gone. His two sisters, 24-year-old Majad and 21-year-old Mai, are married; fortunately for them, they live in Jabalya so they survived. Atiya, a former police officer for the Palestinian Authority, worked as a guard in Al-Awda Hospital in Gaza City.
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On Sunday, May 5, the last deadly day of the most recent blood-drenched round of fighting in the Strip and the so-called Gaza envelope in Israel, Abu el-Jedian’s family didn’t know what to do. Missiles and shells slammed into their neighborhood. There are no bomb shelters anywhere in the Gaza Strip, they’ve never heard of secure rooms, never even dreamed of “Code Red” or other alarm systems. They weighed the pros and cons of going to the daughters in Jabalya or remaining in their apartment. What would be safer? Finally the parents decided to stay home with Abd al-Rahman. Meanwhile, Mohammad set out on foot for the Jabalya camp, slightly more than a kilometer away. It was midday. First he went to his uncle’s home. Now he says he had wanted to get some air after the days of anxiety and tension at home.
Because of Beit Lahia’s proximity to the border with Israel, it’s almost always one of the first targets of air force bombings. At around 2 P.M., Mohammad returned home and went to sleep. He woke up at 6 P.M., and returned on foot to Jabalya, this time taking food with him that his mother had cooked for his two sisters. They live near the camp’s Al-Fahora neighborhood, which was heavily bombed in Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
Evening fell. Atiya called and asked Mohammad to come home. The bombing was intensifying. He told him that the situation was dangerous and that he should not be outside. Other Beit Lahia residents, among them the members of the Al-Madhoun family, had already been killed, on the first day of bombings, on May 3. The father, Abd al-Rahim, 60; his son, Abdullah, 21, who was active in Islamic Jihad; and his daughter-in-law, Amani, 36, in her ninth month – all had been killed in the bombing that day. A neighbor, Fadi Badran, was also killed in the same attack.
On the way home, Abu el-Jedian heard explosions but didn’t see any planes in the sky. Gazans never see the planes that bomb them. His father called again, worried. Where are you? Come home. It’s dangerous. That was about 7:30 P.M. When he reached the stairwell of his building he saw his fourth-floor neighbor, Mohammed Taha, and greeted him on the start of Ramadan. Abu el-Jedian then climbed up the stairs, which is when he saw the incoming missile from the window.
All he remembers now is the tremendous shock wave that hurled him down the stairs. He wasn’t injured. He doesn’t remember the noise. He just found himself flying through the air. When he recovered he was certain that it wasn’t his home that had been hit but a Hamas position not far away. He wanted to go upstairs – but couldn’t find the fourth and fifth floors of the building. They had been erased. Wiped off the face of the earth. It was dark, and clouds of dust blanketed the stairwell. When he realized that his home had been devastated he mumbled the words, “There is no God but Allah.” He knew that everyone on those two floors was no longer among the living, and recalled that his parents and brother had been waiting for him at home.
“My parents are shahids [martyrs], my brother is a shahid, come and help me,” he remembers shouting into the dark, smoky stairwell. The neighbors on the lower floors had fled. He went up to the ruins of the fourth floor to look for his parents and his brother. For an instant, he says, hope flared that they might still be alive. He found nothing and then went down to the street.
Outside he saw a horrifying sight: the body parts of a man, woman and baby. He recognized them as Iman and Ahmed al-Razali, both of them About 30, and their little daughter, 3-month-old Marya, his fifth-floor neighbors. He didn’t find his family’s bodies. He hurried to the Indonesian Hospital, a few hundred meters away, to see if his family was there. Maybe they were only injured?
Neither his parents nor his brother were there. After waiting About an hour at the hospital, an ambulance brought in the scorched and legless body of his little brother, Abd al-Rahman, which was sent to the morgue. Abu el-Jedian hurried home to look for his parents, still to no avail, and then walked to the home of his uncle, Awani Abu el-Jedian, in Jabalya. There the family set up a mourning tent.
He didn’t sleep a wink the whole night, only cried and cried. He still hadn’t given up all hope of finding his parents alive, he recalls now. At 5 A.M. he returned to the building, where rescue and evacuation forces were still at work. After two and a half hours he found parts of his parents’ bodies on the fifth floor of the building next door. He took them to the Indonesian Hospital where they were laid next to the remains of their son. At midday he took all of the remains to the local mosque; in the afternoon they were buried in the Beit Lahia cemetery.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit this week gave this response to Haaretz: “The IDF aims its attacks only at military targets. That is the case generally and also in the present incident, in which the attack was aimed at a war room of the Hamas terrorist organization located in a residential structure. In combating the terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip, the IDF operates to the greatest extent possible to minimize harm to civilians, adopting a broad range of precautions, including issuing effective warnings when circumstances permit.
“The terrorist organizations are making cruel use of citizens of Gaza by placing military positions in residential structures and among the civilian population. The attack in question is being investigated by the relevant units in the IDF.”
The Gazans have nothing comparable to the Israeli organization Zaka (a Hebrew acronym for Disaster Victim Identification), which gathers body parts after attacks and accidents, so Abu el-Jedian spent the days that followed searching for the rest of his parents’ remains, burying them later in the courtyard of the building because he didn’t want to reopen their graves. The whole, damaged building is now empty and will remain so until the extent of the damage can be determined and the power and water supply are restored.
“I am now almost thrown into the street. I have no father, I have no mother, I have no brother. Only I and my sisters are left from the family,” Abu el-Jedian tells us. If he’d come home five minutes earlier, he too would now be among the dead. Where does he get his strength? “God gave me the strength to continue my life. I am still in shock and don’t believe I lost my family. I don’t want to be alone. I need to be with someone all the time.”