Inside the bloodstained Gaza tower block ripped apart by Israeli airstrike

·6 min read
Wounded Palestinian girl Rahaf Salman, 11, who lost her limbs during the fighting, watches her aunt wipe her face from a hospital bed - REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Wounded Palestinian girl Rahaf Salman, 11, who lost her limbs during the fighting, watches her aunt wipe her face from a hospital bed - REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

On the upper floors of Palestine Tower, the residents move around in the darkness over chunks of glass and debris as they seek out their belongings.

Clothes, sofas and other fragments of their lives before the airstrike are buried under collapsed walls. In one room, which belonged to a family of eight, blood is smeared across a wall. The air is heavy with smoke and an acrid, chemical smell which residents suspect was left by the missiles.

The block of offices and apartments in Gaza city was ripped apart by an Israeli airstrike on Friday, as Israel launched its biggest assault on the Palestinian enclave since last May.

The airstrike targeted Tayseer al-Jabari, a commander in the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but subsequent strikes in Gaza just minutes later also took the life of a five-year-old girl and a 23-year-old woman, among others.

Khalil Kanoon, a resident and spokesman for the building, said he and his family were just about to have lunch when the missiles hit - four on the western side, and three from the east, he said.

A Palestinian clown carries a child during a show amid the rubble of a building destroyed in the latest round of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip - SAID KHATIB/AFP
A Palestinian clown carries a child during a show amid the rubble of a building destroyed in the latest round of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip - SAID KHATIB/AFP

"My mother, my wife and I were in the kitchen and my children were playing in the bedroom," said Mr Kanoon. "I was telling my wife that it seemed Israel was about to strike Gaza, and before I finished the sentence we heard a very big explosion and the windows blew out. There were screams and we heard explosions from every direction."

Mr Kanoon said he went barefoot over the shattered glass on the floor to fetch his children and managed to escape the building with his family intact, though his mother was wounded in the hand.

Palestinian mother Rasha Qadoom sits by her wounded child Rayed near a poster depicting her five-year-old daughter Alaa, who was killed during the latest conflict - MAHMUD HAMS/AFP
Palestinian mother Rasha Qadoom sits by her wounded child Rayed near a poster depicting her five-year-old daughter Alaa, who was killed during the latest conflict - MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

The airstrike has left 380 residents homeless and Mr Kanoon suspects it could take a long time before repairs are made, as some buildings struck in previous conflicts with Israel have still not been rebuilt. The residents were unaware that al-Jabari was in the building and received no warning before the airstrike, he said.

Inside, the stairwell connecting each floor is littered with shards of glass from the windows. On the sixth and seventh floors, The Telegraph saw the gutted remains of a living room where sofas were buried under huge chunks of debris and the walls were streaked with blood. Deeper inside, piles of clothing were strewn under more debris in a bedroom.

The airstrike on Palestine Tower was the first salvo in an intense three-day round of fighting between PIJ and Israel which left 44 Palestinians dead, including 15 children, and injured hundreds of others. Israel said it launched the "pre-emptive" operation as it suspected PIJ was about to launch its own assault on Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip.

Israel has also said that a number of rockets fired by Palestinian militants failed to launch and landed inside the Gaza Strip, including an explosion in Jabaliya which killed several people. But Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, has blamed the incident on an Israeli airstrike.

The Israeli military said it takes "all feasible precautions" to prevent civilian harm and that it was reviewing reports of civilian casualties. Islamic Jihad has also said it will investigate reports of friendly fire from rockets in Gaza.

A ceasefire came into effect on Sunday night, but that is cold comfort for the tower's traumatised residents. "We condemn this unjustified Israeli strike with so many bombs targeting civilians on a weekend, where they were not pre-warned," Mr Kanoon said. "We are calling for the buildings to be rebuilt so we can go back to our apartments.

Mourners carry the bodies of Palestinian militants of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade Hussein Taha and Islam Sabbouh, who were killed in an Israeli raid, during a funeral procession in the West Bank city of Nablus - JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP
Mourners carry the bodies of Palestinian militants of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade Hussein Taha and Islam Sabbouh, who were killed in an Israeli raid, during a funeral procession in the West Bank city of Nablus - JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP

"The situation is very hard," he added. "Some families will have to rent [elsewhere], some are staying with relatives and some have nowhere to go. We also want psychological support."

Across Gaza, hospitals continued this week with their grim task of treating victims of the airstrikes despite severe shortages in medicine. At Shifa hospital in Gaza city, doctors said they were mainly treating wounds to the head and lower limbs.

"The healthcare system is exposed to collapse, even if there had been no aggression. Every year it is worse," said Dr Hani Sami al-Haytham, chairman of Shifa accident and emergency department.

Visibly overworked and agitated, the doctor ticked off the crises he was juggling in the hospital on his fingers.

"The ultrasound was donated by the Red Cross, but it is out of order and we have no alternative because of the repeated power cuts... if the power keeps going off this causes malfunctions."

A number of children have suffered life-changing injuries, including 11-year-old Rahaf Suleiman whose feet and arm had to be amputated.

Wounded Palestinian girl Rahaf Salman, 11, who lost her limbs - REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Wounded Palestinian girl Rahaf Salman, 11, who lost her limbs - REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Israel has hailed the weekend operation as a major success, which they claim has practically wiped out Islamic Jihad's senior leadership. The militant group launched hundreds of rockets at Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but there have been no deaths or serious injuries on the Israeli side.

The trigger point for the violence was the arrest of a senior Islamic Jihad figure in the West Bank, which infuriated the group's leadership in Gaza, though it did not launch any rockets in protest. Israel says Islamic Jihad had moved anti-tank squads to the border with Gaza to carry out an attack, which they took as the pretext for the airstrike on al-Jabari.

While the operation has caused yet more suffering for Palestinians in Gaza, it is likely to boost the security credentials of Israel's prime minister, Yair Lapid, ahead of elections in November.

Back at Shifa hospital, Ghassan Abu Ramadan, a survivor of the airstrike on Palestine Tower, is lying in a hospital bed, his legs swollen and covered in bandages.

"You can't imagine the explosion," said the retired 65-year-old engineer. "We can't believe we survived," he said, referring to his wife, two sons and two daughters.

An event was held for Palestinian children on the rubble of buildings that were destroyed in the Gaza Strip - Rahim Khatib/Anadolu
An event was held for Palestinian children on the rubble of buildings that were destroyed in the Gaza Strip - Rahim Khatib/Anadolu

On the streets of Gaza city, life is slowly returning as Palestinians return to shops, cafés and markets. But on many street corners, tents and rows of plastic chairs have been set up for funerals mourning the victims.

And while this year's conflict was relatively brief, with a ceasefire declared after just three days, there is grim certainty in Gaza that it won't be the last.