The bombing of the Gaza apartment building has become the focus of debate over civilian casualties in the Hamas-Israeli war. For the people living there it was much more than that.
Gaza City – As Israeli air raids hit Gaza City for the sixth night, Dr. Ayman Aboul Auf climbed the stairs of the apartment block his family had built four decades ago, feeling quieter than he had been all day was. The Abul Auf Building, located in a wealthy shopping district on Al Wahda Street, was the last place he thought Israel would hit.
After a 16-hour day driving the coronavirus team at Gaza’s biggest hospital, he returned to his third-floor apartment at midnight. He could hear the bombs, but mainly from the television in his living room. His upscale neighborhood was considered so safe that relatives from elsewhere in the war in Gaza awaited the bombing of his apartment.
In the next room his son Tawfiq, a high school senior, was taking a science exam. One floor below, Dr. Abul Auf’s father, a scientist by the name of Taufeeq, was cooking dinner late at night. One floor up, their cousin’s daughter, Shaima, a dentistry student, was texting her fiancé.
Minutes later, they were all dead.
On Sunday, May 16, around 1 a.m., an Israeli airstrike killed 21 of the 38 people in the building that night. About three weeks later the 22nd resident died of his injuries.
The Israeli military said the target of the attack was not an apartment building but a tunnel down the street in front of it.
In a conflict in which both sides are accused of war crimes, the air raid on Al Wahda Street that night stands out for its shocking civilian death toll and the destruction of nearly entire families. The attack, which also destroyed another residential building across the street, was the deadliest in the recent 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, killing a total of 44 people.
A delicate ceasefire was tested this week after militants sent incendiary balloons to Israel and Israel responded with air strikes.
But the raid on Al Wahda Street is a symbol of debate over whether what Israel said was a legitimate military target could have avoided killing civilians. And to what extent Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, also takes responsibility for burying military infrastructure beneath the cities.
What is not disputed is that the affluent, largely upper-middle class community that resided in the five-story Abul Auf building was destroyed in a jiffy. The families of a doctor, a scientist, a waiter, a shopkeeper and a psychologist lived in the block. It embodied 40 years of hopes and aspirations for the family that owned it – Abul Aufs.
“There are still so many memories,” said 42-year-old waiter Riyad Ishkontana, who lost his wife and four of their five children. “But the Israeli bombing buried them.”
The conflict began a few days earlier, shortly after 6 p.m. on May 10, when Hamas fired half a dozen rockets toward Jerusalem. Hamas said it was responding to Israel’s actions in East Jerusalem, which included police raids on the Aqsa mosque complex and the planned eviction of Palestinian residents – provocations, it said, which demanded a forceful reprimand.
The Hamas rocket attack, which experts say possibly constituted a war crime because it targeted civilian areas, prompted Israel to retaliate with air strikes. Israel soon focused on a network of tunnels that Hamas used to transfer weapons and fighters.
In an interview, an Israeli military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, said that on the morning of 16 May, several Israeli aircraft fired 11 missiles 200 yards of Al Wahda Street, aimed at destroying a tunnel and command center. below it. Drone video filmed by the Israeli military shortly thereafter showed a row of potholes left in the road by GPS-guided bombs.
But while most of the nearby buildings remained standing, the Abul Auf building collapsed, which the official described as “a strange incident”.
Colonel Conricus said the army did not know the exact location of the command center, nor how far it had spread beneath adjacent buildings. He said that when the bombs detonated deep underground, they unexpectedly uprooted the foundations of the Abul Auf building.
Colonel Conricus said that the army, the Israel Defense Forces, “takes all possible measures to prevent harm to the lives and property of civilians.”
“Despite the fact that Hamas deliberately builds its underground military infrastructure beneath civilian buildings,” he said, “the IDF attacks this infrastructure in open areas whenever possible, while building nearby buildings.” tries to prevent harm.”
Hamas has admitted to building a network of tunnels under Gaza for military purposes, but at a news conference on 26 May, Yahya Sinwar, leader of Hamas’ political wing in Gaza, denied that any of them were in civilian areas. is, dismissing the allegation as “baseless.”
However, the United Nations believes that Hamas has built at least one military tunnel. a united nations school.
Rights experts said the use of such powerful weapons in dense urban environments put civilian lives at risk and was a potential war crime. And if Hamas installed military facilities beneath residential areas, that too was a potential war crime.
The building’s owners, the Abul Auf family, lived in Gaza before the arrival of thousands of Palestinian refugees after the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, giving them an elevated social status. Dr. Abul Auf Shifa, 50, used to run the internal medicine department at the hospital.
His father, Tawfiq Abul Auf, 80, was a senior chemist at an Emirati oil company for decades, relatives said. The doctor’s cousin, Raja, who lived in a third-floor apartment with their four children, was a psychologist.
“It’s a well-known address,” said 29-year-old Muhammad al-Shanti, who runs a bakery in front. “When you call a taxi, you can say, ‘Pick me up from the Abul Of Building.'”
Like many Gaza residents, most of the building’s residents had never left the strip. An Israeli and Egyptian blockade imposed after Hamas took control of the region in 2007 has largely confined Gaza’s residents to one of the world’s most densely populated lands. This has also contributed to severe fuel and electricity shortages: even the Abul Of Building received electricity for just eight hours a day.
Still, its residents had dreams. The doctor’s son Taufeeq hoped that he would study chemistry in college. Her second cousin, Shaima, was just two months away from her wedding.
The family said that Abul Aufs moved to the area in 1960. The head of the family, Ismail Abul Auf, had made a fortune making pastries and trading real estate. He bought a villa with a large yard in Rimal, then a mostly undeveloped area on the edge of Gaza City.
In the early 1980s, as his family grew, he demolished the villa and built the block now known as the Abul Auf Building. By the time of the air raid, it had eight apartments, five of which were used by Abul Ouf.
After the Oslo Accords, interim peace agreements signed between Israel and the exiled Palestinian leadership in the 1990s, senior Palestinian leaders returned to Gaza with a rush of investment. High-rise buildings were built in Rimal. Suddenly, it became a bustling shopping district.
That enthusiasm faded in the 2000s, when Hamas, which does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, won elections and seized power in Gaza. This split the enclave from the occupied West Bank and led to several wars with Israel.
Through all of that, the Abul Auf complex remained a sanctuary, hosting relatives from more dangerous parts of Gaza.
“We have gone through many wars, but our place is always safe,” said the doctor’s 16-year-old son, Umar Abul Auf.
After a long stay in the hospital, Dr. Abul Auf was dropped that night by an ambulance driver near his apartment. The doctor seemed happy, happy to go home, the driver said.
Half an hour later, the doctor was pulled over a mattress in front of the television, which he had pulled from a bedroom, Omar recalled. When the air raid began, Omar spontaneously jumped to his feet, grabbed his younger sister, Tala, 12, and dragged her down the aisle.
His father was still lying on the mattress. Then the building collapsed.
Shaima Abul Auf’s fiancée, Anas al-Yazi, lived nearby and heard the explosions.
“Hide,” he texted Shaima.
The message never reached his phone.
Tala died in Omar’s arms as they came under the rubble.
Rescuers found him 12 hours later on Sunday afternoon. Of the five family members living in Dr. Abul Auf’s apartment, only Umar survived.
Mr Ishkontana, who lives on the fourth floor, is a descendant of refugees who fled to Gaza in 1948. This was the second time his family had lost their home in three generations, he said.
Abir Abdel Aal, 38, Dr. Abul Auf’s cousin, lives in an apartment so close to the destroyed building of her relatives that she feeds them on a narrow street.
But Dr. Abul Auf is now dead. Abul Auf Building is gone. And with it a four-decade history of one family.
“It feels like a tree that has been cut down,” she said.
Soliman Hizzy contributed reporting.