RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Ibrahim Hasouna trudged over the rubble of the destroyed house, pointing out where family moments had taken place — where his mother and sister-in-law used to sleep, where he played with his 5-year-old nieces, where he helped his 1-year-old nephew take his first steps.
His entire family was now dead — his parents, his two brothers, and the wife and three children of one of those brothers. The house was reduced to rubble on top of them in the barrage of airstrikes that Israeli warplanes inflicted across Rafah before dawn Monday as cover for troops rescuing two hostages elsewhere in the city on the southern Gaza border.
At least 74 Palestinians were killed in the bombardment, which flattened large swaths of buildings and tents sheltering families who had fled to Rafah from across Gaza.
Among the dead were 27 children and 22 women, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, whose researchers compiled the list from Rafah hospitals. The Israeli offensive has taken a heavy toll on women and children, with more than 12,300 Palestinian children and young teens killed in the conflict, the Gaza Health Ministry said Monday.
The 30-year-old Ibrahim, his parents and his brothers arrived in Rafah a month earlier, the latest of their multiple moves to escape fighting after fleeing their homes in northern Gaza. They rented a small, one-story house on the east side of Rafah.
“I was close to them,” Ibrahim said of his older brother Karam’s children. In the house, he would play cards or hide-and-seek with them to distract them from the war, he said. The twin girls, Suzan and Sedra, often asked if they would go to kindergarten and if their teacher from kindergarten back home was alive or dead, he said.
The strikes came at a moment of joy. The families had just obtained three chickens — the first they would have to eat since the war started more than four months ago.
“The children were thrilled,” Ibrahim said. The family was sick of canned food, which was the main thing they were able to get under an Israeli siege that has allowed only a trickle of humanitarian aid into Gaza.
They planned to eat the chicken Sunday night. But during the day, Ibrahim went to visit a friend on the other side of Rafah, who convinced him to stay the night. Ibrahim called home, and they decided to put off the treasured meal so he wouldn’t miss it. Ibrahim’s mother, Suzan, put the chickens in the neighbor’s fridge.
Just after 2 a.m. Monday, Ibrahim began getting calls from friends telling him strikes had hit in the neighborhood where his family was staying. Unable to reach them by phone, he walked and hitched a motorcycle ride back home. He found massive destruction, he said.
The first thing he saw was a woman’s arm that had been hurled across the street to the door of a neighboring mosque. It was his mother’s. He dug through the rubble, pulling out body parts.
Later he went to the Youssef Najjar Hospital and identified the bodies of his mother and his father, Fawzi, an engineer. The body of his younger brother Mohammed had no head, but he recognized the clothes.
In a bag that staff brought him were parts of his brother Karam and his family. He recognized pieces of his niece Suzan from her earrings and a bracelet, one she used to fight over all the time with her sister, Ibrahim said.
He spoke to The Associated Press on Tuesday as he walked around the rubble of the home. He recalled how the children’s noise in the morning would wake him up, but “their noises were comforting for me.”
He pointed to part of the wreckage. There, he said he would sit with his nephew Malek “to bask in the sun and to walk him for a little bit. To walk a little bit and have a sense of life.”
Israel said the bombardment was to cover its troops as they extracted two Israeli hostages from an apartment and made their way back out of Gaza. The military has not commented on why specific sites across Rafah were targeted in the barrage, but Israeli officials have blamed Hamas for causing civilian casualties by operating in the heart of residential areas.
The extent of the bloodshed from the raid has increased fears of what could happen if Israel follows through with vows to attack Rafah in its campaign to destroy Hamas. The city and its surroundings now shelter more than half of the Gaza Strip’s entire population of 2.3 million after hundreds of thousands took refuge there.
Already, Israel's campaign in Gaza has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians, more than 70% of them women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The count does not distinguish between civilians and combatants.
Israel has vowed to uproot Hamas from Gaza and win the return of more than 100 hostages still in the group's hands after the Oct. 7 attacks in which militants killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians.
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