'What Do We Tell Kids Who Lost Classmates in an Israeli Strike?': Gaza Reeling From Family’s Death

Relative of children who died says at visit to their school, where classmates paid tributes: 'Why should they care that the army admitted it hit them by mistake?'

Palestinian pupils sit in class where commemorative pictures of their late classmate Muath are displayed, at his school in Dir al-Balah, November 16, 2019.
Said Khatib/AFP

"What do we tell these children? Why were three of their classmates killed?" implored Saturday a member of Gaza's al-Sawarkah tribe, who lost a family of eight in an Israeli airstrike on Wednesday overnight.

The relative spoke during a visit to the school in Dir al-Balah that the three children who died in the attack had attended.

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The photos of seven-year-old Muath Mohammed al-Sawarkah, his 13-year-old brother Wasim and 12-year-old cousin Muhannad were displayed at the school for their classmates to pay tributes.

"How do you explain it kids at that age?" wondered the family's relative, who spoke to the media. "Why should they care that the army admitted it hit them by mistake?" she added.

The relative was referring to the Israeli military's statement that prior to the strike, which came at the end of a two-day round of fighting between Israel and Gaza-based Islamic Jihad,  it was under the impression that the house was empty.

Palestinian pupils sit in class in front of a commemorative picture of their late classmate Muath at his school in Dir al-Balah, November 16, 2019.
Said Khatib/AFP

Israel's claims that a mistake had been made are not helping the family at all as they try to cope with what happened, said Hamdan al-Sawarkah, cousin of 45-year-old Rasmi, who also lost his two children Muath and Wasim in the strike.

He said that the family lived in the compound that was hit for some 15 years, refuting some Israeli claims that they may have moved there only recently and therefore Israeli intelligence agencies hadn't known there would be civilians there. "They lived in the simplest way possible, three brothers and their wives and children crammed into a compound that stretches over less than half a dunam," al-Sawarkah said. "On Thursday, early in the morning, loud blasts shook the compound, four rockets hit and ruined everything. It was a devastating sight."

Rasmi, a veteran of the Palestinian Authority's security agencies, was married to three women. One of them, 39-year-old Yousra, was killed with him in the Israeli strike, as well as their sons Muhannad, two-year-old Salem and one-year-old Firas, according to Gaza's Health Ministry. 45-year-old Maryam, who was married to Rasmi's brother, Mohammed, also died in the strike. Mohammed was wounded and family members say they fear for his life.

Rasmi and Mohammed were herders who tended to their flock, Hamdan said. He added they made a living from trading sheep and goats, hardly getting by, and lived in extremely difficult conditions.

Palestinians gather around crater following an Israeli air strike at Dir al-Balah in the southern Gaza Strip, November 14, 2019.
Said Khatib/AFP

The two brothers' mother, 70-year-old Salima, recalled the moments after the strike in a coversation with the Turkish news agency Anadolu at the Gaza hospital. "One of my granddaughters came rushing to me, crying, shivering and screaming 'call emergency services!'" she said. "I got there and the scene was horrible. I have no power left in me to survive, I don't know how I'm going to raise" the children who survived.

The Israeli strike targeted a building that appeared in an outdated target database, and it was carried out without prior inspection of civilian presence at the site, defense officials confirmed to Haaretz on Friday.

Furthermore, after the attack, the Israeli army's Arabic-language spokesman claimed that the building was a command post for an Islamic Jihad rocket launching unit in the central Strip. However, this claim was backed by unreliable information based on rumors on social media, which hadn't been verified.

Contrary to statements given to the media, defense sources confirmed that the site was a complex of shacks – a target that would not have had much significance had Islamic Jihad used it. Senior defense officials told Haaretz the target was approved in the past according to protocol, but had not been reexamined since.

This family's killing has been heavily criticized by Palestinian officials and citizens, also drawing condemnation from the United Nations envoy Nickolay Mladenov, who tweeted: "There is no justification to attacking civilians in Gaza, or elsewhere! Such a tragedy! My heartfelt condolences to the family of Al-Sawarkah & I wish a speedy recovery to the injured. I call on Israel to move swiftly with its investigation."