RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — The evacuation warning came shortly after dark. The Israeli military fired the shot close to Nasser Abu Quta’s home in the southern Gaza Strip, a precautionary measure intended to allow people to evacuate before airstrikes.
Abu Quta, 57, believed he and his extended family would be safe a few hundred meters from the house that was warned of the impending strike. He huddled with his relatives on the ground floor of his four-story building and prepared for an impact in the area.
But Abu Quta’s neighbor’s house was never hit. In an instant, an explosion rocked his own home, killing 19 members of his family, including his wife and cousins, he said. The airstrike also killed five of his neighbors who were standing outside the crowded refugee camp, a warren of buildings and alleys.
The airstrike in Rafah, a southern city on the border with Egypt, came as Israeli forces stepped up their bombardment of targets in the Gaza Strip following a major multi-front attack by Hamas militants on Saturday that killed over 700 people in Israel by Sunday evening had been killed. Hamas also took dozens of Israelis hostage and fired thousands of rockets at Israeli population centers, but most were intercepted by the country’s Iron Dome defense system.
So far, the waves of air strikes have killed over 400 Palestinians, including dozens of women and children, health authorities reported on Sunday. There appeared to have been several similar deadly airstrikes on crowded residential buildings.
The Israeli military said late Saturday that it had attacked several Hamas offices and command centers in multi-story buildings.
But Abu Quta doesn’t understand why Israel attacked his home. There were no militants in his building, he stressed, and his family had not been warned. Otherwise they would not have stayed in their house, his relative Khalid added.
“This is a safe house with children and women,” said Abu Quta, still in shock as he recalled the tragedy in fragmented details.
“Dust flooded the house. There were screams,” he said. “There were no walls. Everything was open.”
The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the attack on Abu Quta’s home.
The army says it carries out precision strikes against militant commanders or locations and does not target civilians. It also points to its opponents’ practice of embedding militants in civilian areas throughout the impoverished coastal enclave of 2.3 million people, which is subject to a heavy land, air and sea blockade by Israel and Egypt.
However, human rights groups have previously said Israel’s pattern of deadly attacks on homes reflects a disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians, arguing that this may be the case war crimes.
In past wars and rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas militants, individual Israeli airstrikes have killed large numbers of civilians – for example 22 members of the same family in a single blow in a bloody war in 2021.
Abu Quta was grief-stricken Sunday as he prepared for the many burials with his two dozen other surviving relatives, including injured children and grandchildren. Many bodies pulled from beneath the rubble were charred and mutilated, he said.
While he managed to identify the bodies of 14 family members, the bodies of at least four children remained unrecognizable in the morgue. A body was missing.
“Maybe tomorrow we’ll put them in a single grave,” he said. “May they rest in peace.”