Brutalised civilians recall the horrific toll of the last Israeli invasion and fear it will happen again.
The family of Hafez Hamad, a senior member of Islamic Jihad, were sitting on low divans between two houses when the rocket hit them a little before midnight.
Fired from a drone, it struck the ground close to one of the sofas, leaving behind a round, metre-deep hole and five people dead, including Hamad and his 20-year-old niece.
“They were just talking, sitting outside their house,” says Mariam Hamad, Hafez Hamad’s sister-in-law. “Usually there is a warning, but in this case the missile struck out of the blue.”
She was referring to a practice known as the “knock on the roof”, when small projectiles are fired to warn civilians to leave buildings. In other cases, strikes have been preceded by a phone call, warning inhabitants to flee. But despite the warnings, the bombing sometimes injures or kills people in neighbouring houses.
In any case, there was no knock on the roof for the Hamad family.
Even this early in Israel’s campaign against Hamas and other militant factions in Gaza, the bodies of the civilian victims are beginning to pile up, with children and an 80-year-old woman among the dead.
The Israeli military said it struck about 200 Hamas targets on the second day of its offensive this week and warned of a possible ground invasion, while the rockets militants continued to fire from Gaza were intermittently visible – in pairs, threes and even sets of four, their vapour trails climbing high.
The Israeli military said more than 60 rockets were fired at Israel on Wednesday. So far there have been no fatalities from these attacks.
In all, 43 Palestinians are reported to have been killed by Israeli strikes on Gaza. Many have been civilians, hospital officials claim. Among the total are 15 women and children, and there are claims that, in four air strikes, only women and children were killed.
According to an emergency services spokesperson in Gaza, Ashraf al-Qudra, in one incident a missile struck a house in Al-Maghazi, a beachside refugee camp near Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, killing a mother and her four children. Earlier, another two women and four children died in attacks to the north and east of Gaza City.
In addition, about 370 people have been wounded in the two days.
Israel has long alleged that the militants “hide” among the civilian population, but what is clear is that Israel’s targets have included homes and streets, as well as missile sites and buildings associated with Hamas.
Hamad’s house had been destroyed before, in 2012, by Israeli military forces and rebuilt.
His family admits he was a member of Islamic Jihad, a group involved in firing rockets into Israel, but claim he had left the militant group. One of his brothers – who was killed with him – had cancer, they also claim.
“It happened at 11.45[pm],” said a cousin, Hamad Hamad (22), who lives nearby and was one of the first on the scene.
“I heard the bomb and found the blood and bodies. He was the target, but they also killed two of his brothers, Ibrahim and Mahdi, the wife of Hafez, and Mahdi’s daughter, who was only 20.”
As he spoke the sound of a drone was audible above.
Among the locations targeted in Gaza have been about 40 houses, many of them listed on Gaza’s radio news: an apartment block in New Gaza, a house in Zaytoun and Hamad’s house in Beit Hanoun.
In truth, there is little left of the Zaytoun house owned by Mustafa Malaka. A security officer in Hamas, he has been largely unemployed because of the group’s financial crisis, which meant he was no longer being paid. He had turned to farming chickens behind his house to make a living.
Perhaps, like Hamad, he had been involved in firing rockets, but when the bomb hit his house, say relatives, it injured Malaka and killed his wife, Hana, and their three-year-old son, Mohammad.
At the Shifa hospital in Gaza, its corridors – half-empty the day before – have been transformed into chaos, packed with the wounded and relatives, who sit even in the stairwells waiting for news.
A youth is brought in by his friends, his head wrapped in a bloody bandage; a young girl, her face and upper body burned, is wheeled past urgently.
In many areas, especially to the north and south of Gaza City, where the scrubby fields are used as launching sites for missiles aimed at Israel, the roads have been almost emptied.
In Gaza City itself, people are stocking up on food, not only for the Ramadan Iftar meal, but also in fear of what might happen if there is a ground incursion.
Even as the Egyptian government indicated it was involved in attempting to broker a ceasefire, as it has done in the past, Israeli ministers and officials were raising the prospect of escalating the campaign to a full-scale invasion.
“We will have to take over Gaza temporarily, for a few weeks, to cut off the strengthening of this terror army,” Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s intelligence minister, told Israel Radio. “If you ask my humble opinion, a significant operation like this is approaching.”
The government has authorised the army to call up 40 000 reservists.
“We will not stop,” said Israel’s minister of internal security, Yitzhak Aharonovitz. “They’ll first receive a hard blow from air and sea and, if a ground invasion is needed, there will be a ground invasion.”
But few in Gaza are in any doubt about what a ground operation will mean. Although Hamas might be confident it can “absorb the pain”, the invasion during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 is fresh in the memory. In that 22-day offensive, about 1 400 Palestinians were killed, including 300 children. – © Guardian News & Media 2014