AP / May 15, 2023
When Najah Nabhan learned that her home was about to be bombed by Israel, she knew she had to get out quickly. What she didn’t know was how she would get her four children with special needs out of the building in time.
With the help of neighbours, her children, who are unable to walk on their own, were carried to safety. But the airstrike flattened the three-story building, leaving 42 members of Nabhan’s extended family homeless and leaving her children without the wheelchairs, crutches and medical equipment they need to move about.
“I needed time to think what to take and what to leave. We have important documents and reports of the children’s conditions and history, medications and tools. All of them are gone,” said Najah, sitting on a mat in the debris-strewn front yard of what used to be her home in northern Gaza.
On Sunday morning, the entire family gathered in the yard, sitting under the shadow of a tree and receiving visitors who came to show solidarity.
Nabhan’s home was destroyed by the Israeli strike only hours before a cease-fire took effect late Saturday. At least 11 other residential buildings, some containing many family homes, were destroyed by Israeli aircraft in the five days of fighting.
It was the latest in a long line of armed battles between the military and rocket-firing Palestinian militant groups over the past 15 years. Human rights groups say a total of 60 housing units were destroyed, displacing about 400 people during the campaign.
Israel says all of the buildings it targeted were used as command centers by Islamic Jihad.
“The Islamic Jihad terror organizations deliberately operates and embeds its military assets in densely populated civilian areas,” the army said.
An Israeli military official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity under briefing guidelines, said these command centers were usually hidden in residential buildings of one to three stories. He said Israel called the inhabitants and ordered them to evacuate ahead of time. Israel says such calls are meant to prevent harm to uninvolved civilians.
But the army doesn’t always take such precautions. At the start of the offensive, aircraft targeted apartments and homes of three Islamic Jihad commanders without warning, killing them. Some members of their families, including women and children, as well as neighbours were also killed.
Israeli officials say they do their best to avoid civilian casualties, but acknowledge that operations are carried out where uninvolved non-combatants may be harmed. They accuse militants of using civilians as human shields.
Nabhan and other residents said they were surprised by the sudden phone call.
“I was at home, just finished having lunch and was making tea,” she said. “I did not believe it’s our house that is being targeted.”
“My feet could not hold me. I sat helpless until people took us out,” she recounted.
In a video circulated on social media, a relative is seen pleading with the military not to carry out the strike. The man, a neighbour and distant relative, eventually asked the military to limit the airstrike “to the apartment of the guilty” rather than wiping out the entire building. It was unclear if he was referring to someone specific or speaking in hypothetical terms.
With minutes to spare, the neighbours carried Nabhan’s 24-year-old daughter, Ayat, who can’t walk, Areej, 18, who suffers from epilepsy and walking difficulties, and 14-year-old Haneen, who has a chronic illness and movement issues, from the ground-floor apartment. They went upstairs and carried out her son Jalal, who also uses a wheelchair.
After the bombing, the family worked late into the night sifting through the rubble, but was unable to recover Ayat’s and Jalal’s wheelchairs, Haneen’s crutches or the correction belt of a 3-year-old niece, who has a deformity in her leg.
Jalal Nabhan, 30, angrily dismissed the Israeli allegations. “Can people like me fire a rocket?” he said, pointing toward his legs and at his disabled sisters. “No one from us can fire a rocket toward Israel.”
The fighting erupted last Tuesday when Israeli airstrikes killed three senior Islamic Jihad commanders in what it said was a response to intense rocket fire the previous week following the death of an Islamic Jihad activist from a hunger strike while in Israeli custody.
The five-day battle left 33 Palestinians dead, according to Palestinian health officials. Among them were 13 civilians, including four women and six children. At least three of the civilians, including two children, were killed by misfired Islamic Jihad rockets, according to rights groups.
Eighteen militants, including six senior Islamic Jihad members, were killed, according to Palestinian officials, while two people were killed in Israel from Palestinian rocket fire. Islamic Jihad fired nearly 1,500 rockets toward Israel, according to the army.
After the airstrike, the Nabhan family, including Najah and her husband, their children and grandchildren, spent the night at the homes of neighbours, friends and in-laws. Some slept in the front yard next to the rubble.
Neighbours denied the Israeli claims that the family was connected to a militant group. “They are simple people who do menial, intermittent jobs to earn whatever,” said Mohammed al-Arabid, a neighbour.
One was a taxi driver, another was a construction worker, a third owned a donkey-drawn cart he would use to help people move garbage or furniture.
The family, among Gaza’s poorest, built the home just four years ago with donations from charities. Before that, they lived in makeshift structures with tin roofs.
Falasteen Nabhan, 30, lived on the third floor with her husband and four children. Her home was the last to be completed, just last year.
“My apartment had windows, painted walls, and tile. It was a palace for me,” she said.
But rebuilding will not be easy. The family now joins the long list of displaced Gazans seeking aid from the Hamas government, the United Nations or international non-governmental organizations to rebuild homes lost in conflict.
Some of the houses destroyed in broader conflicts in 2021 and even 2014 still have not been rebuilt.
Najah Nabhan says she will wait as long as it takes. “We can live in the yard, on the ground, eat tree leaves, for the sake of getting our house rebuilt,” she said.
Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report