Bomb disposal squad in Gaza faces risks amid little protection

Since Israel’s bombing of Gaza last month, the squad has carried out 1,200 missions to neutralize, defuse and destroy unexploded bombs in residential areas.

Gaza City, Gaza – On 19 May, shortly after midnight, a reconnaissance missile hit the roof of the Muhareb family home in Rafa, south of the besieged Gaza Strip.

Two minutes later, an Israeli warplane dropped another missile, which crashed through two floors of the house, but did not explode.

“My brother and his family, who live on the second floor, were all injured by the reconnaissance missile,” Waseem Muhareb told Al Jazeera. “My four-month-old was in a coma for two days, and my eight-year-old niece Leanne was in the intensive care unit for 10 days with burns all over her body.”

The home of the extended Muhareb family, which housed 36 adults and children, was ruined. The second missile hit a children’s bedroom before landing on the first floor.

“There was no warning,” said Wasim, whose family is now living in a rented house nearby. “The whole test took place in a span of three minutes.”

A winged interstellar missile widely used by Israeli military aircraft in the recent invasion of Gaza
[Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]

risk and danger

The next day, the Bomb Disposal Squad arrived and removed the unexploded armament as well as the remains of the reconnaissance projectile.

The squad, which operates under the Ministry of the Interior, has carried out 1,200 missions to neutralize, disable and destroy unexploded warheads and dangerous weapons in Gaza’s residential areas since May 10, when Israel attacked the coastal enclave for 11 years. The day-long bombing had begun.

Violence escalated after Israeli forces crackdown on protesters at the Al-Aqsa mosque complex in occupied East Jerusalem. Hamas, the Palestinian group that rules Gaza, issued an ultimatum to Israeli forces to withdraw from the area around the holy site, which is also sacred to Jews, who call it Temple Mount.

After the ultimatum ended, Hamas fired several rockets toward Jerusalem, and Israel launched air strikes on Gaza shortly after. According to health officials, the Israeli bombings continued for 11 days and killed at least 260 Palestinians, including 66 children. At least 13 people in Israel were killed in rockets fired by armed groups in Gaza. Hamas and Israel agreed on a ceasefire on 21 May.

The Gaza bombing caused extensive damage to infrastructure, including the destruction of 1,800 housing units, 74 public buildings, 53 educational facilities and 33 media offices. Damage to the water desalination plant has left more than 250,000 Palestinians without clean drinking water.

Captain Mahmoud Maqdad, an explosives engineer with Gaza’s interior ministry, told Al Jazeera that despite a lack of critical protective equipment, the 70-man bomb disposal squad had not suffered casualties during its operations since May 10.

“The team does not have protective vests or high-tech equipment to reveal the presence of explosives,” said Maqdad. “They only have simple tools, like a toolbox that can be found in almost every home.”

The engineer said that under the 13-year Israeli blockade in Gaza, protective equipment used by bomb disposal teams has been banned from entering Gaza.

Mekdad said the main risk associated with the work during the Israeli offensive was that the team could be targeted.

“The second risk is the type of weapons Israel has dropped, how dangerous they are, and whether the appointed technician can estimate them all with rudimentary equipment at their disposal,” Mekdad said.

The final step in the process of collecting and neutralizing non-exploded warships is to transfer them to a central warehouse located in Rafa in preparation for destruction.

Maqdad said the recent attack saw a new type of weapon – GBU-31 and GBU-39 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) explosives used for the first time on the Gaza Strip. Developed to penetrate heavily fortified military sites, the two-ton explosives were used to level high-rise buildings in residential apartments as well as commercial and media offices.

Captain Mohamed Maqdad shows the remains of Israeli weapons detonated on the Abu al-Auf building during an attack on Wehda Street [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]

Training and field experience

The Bomb Disposal Squad was established in 1996 when Gaza was ruled by the Palestinian Authority. The first team was given a course by experts from the United States, and in 2006, the team was strengthened by adding more engineers and technicians.

Following the deadly 2008–2009 Israeli attack on Gaza, the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) began its operations in addition to training the Ministry of the Interior Bomb Disposal Squad.

Between 2014 and 2020, UNMAS responded to 876 Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) requests, gh 5 directly detonated and destroyed 150 large aerial bombs containing 29,500 kilograms of explosive material, and 7,340 Explosive Ordnance Disposal (ERW) of war Supported the evacuation of goods.

Mekdad said new recruits to the Bomb Disposal Squad receive training from existing staff based on their years of experience working in the field.

“During the last 10-11 years, no one working in this field has left Gaza to receive training outside,” he said.

An exhibit displaying the Explosive Remnants of War (ERW) is on display at the headquarters of the Explosive Engineering Unit in Gaza City. [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]

‘May every day be your last’

Asad al-Aloul, who has been the head of the bomb disposal squad for the past eight years, said his work is among the most dangerous within the security department, which includes the police and internal security agencies.

“Working in this area is a sign of our choice and respect as we remove any harm and threats that endanger our citizens,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Merely working in explosives engineering means you are a martyr,” he said. “Every day you go to your job could mean your last day on earth, because any mistake means it will be the last mistake – no exception.”

In 2014, three technicians from the Bomb Disposal Squad killed, in addition to a foreign journalist and a Palestinian translator present at the scene after an attempt to defuse a missile in northern Gaza.

Despite the job risks, al-Aloul said he has not considered stopping work.

“Knowing all these risks, who else will save and protect our children from injury or death?” he said. “We work to provide a better future for generations to come so that they don’t have to live with the dissection caused by an exploding missile or bomb.”

“Every day you see death, but the Savior is God. It is an honor to die protecting our people.”

Palestinian children playing on top of an unexploded Israeli missile neutralized by a bomb disposal squad [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]


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