Gaza: Palestinians still haunted by memories of 2014 Shujaiya ‘massacre’

Ibrahim Abu al-Kas, a paramedic, lost his closest colleague in the line of duty during the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza (Ahmed Al-Sammak - MEE)

Ahmed al-Sammak

Middle East Eye  /  July 23, 2022 

Three families speak to MEE about the lasting trauma of Israel’s attacks on the densely populated neighbourhood during 2014 assault.

Mohammed al-Silk can clearly recall the exact moment when his life started to crumble. The date was 30 July 2014. It was the third day of Eid al-Fitr, and in the middle of an Israeli assault on Gaza that began earlier in the month. 

The 47-year-old Palestinian was performing ablution for Al-Asr prayer. His wife was making lunch.

Laughter rang out from the roof of their seven-storey house in Shujaiya, northeastern Gaza, where the couple’s three children were playing on swings with their four nieces and nephews. The youngsters were all between two and nine years old.

Nearby, their grandfather, Abd al-Karim, 69, was feeding his chickens and ducks while keeping an eye on his grandchildren.

“There was a ceasefire of four hours, and the children went out playing to decompress from the pressures they lived under due to the [Israeli] assault,” Silk told Middle East Eye.

What he didn’t know at the time was that shortly after the Israeli military declared the “humanitarian ceasefire” it breached it.

Suddenly, he heard the sound of air strikes so close that his whole house shook. He then heard people screaming that Silk’s house had been bombed.

Immediately, “my wife and I ran up the stairs to the rooftop… [and] I found the bodies of my three children. My father and my four nephews and nieces were also dead. Three of them were without heads.”

Silk froze at the sight of this atrocity.

“My wife was screaming: ‘My children, my children… ‘ and then she threw herself on Omiya’s body, my only daughter.

“The body of Abd al-Halim, my elder son, was still intact. So I rushed to his side to check that he was alive. The moment I lifted his head off the ground, his brain dropped out of my hands,” he said.

“I carried him to an ambulance parked in front of our house. As soon as the paramedic and I placed Abd al-Halim in the vehicle, more shells started pouring down on us.”

The civilians

The attack, known to Palestinians as the Shujaiya popular market “massacre,” claimed 17 lives, including seven children, a journalist, two paramedics and a civil defence worker.

It was part of targeted Israeli attacks on the six sq-km neighbourhood, home to 92,000 people, which began on 19 July. The Israeli army claimed the area had become one of the main sources of Palestinian rocket launching during the conflict, which had begun 11 days earlier. 

On 19 July alone, Israel killed around 75 civilians in Shujaiya, most of them women and children. Wide-scale attacks and heavy fighting continued for 10 days. 

Eyewitnesses said Israel’s air strikes on Shujaiya market had targeted those who rushed to the scene to help the wounded. Silk was among the 200 victims injured in the assault.

He fainted briefly after being hit by shrapnel in several parts of his body, including his kidney, liver, pancreas and rib cage. He was transferred to Al-Shifa Hospital, where his leg was amputated.

After eight days and undergoing surgery four times, Silk woke up from his coma.

“When I opened my eyes, I asked doctors to let me go to see my children’s graves, and then I burst into tears,” said the grieving father. But he was in intensive care at the time and was not allowed even to see his wife.

Silk was moved out of the intensive care unit on 20 August and discharged from the hospital on 13 September, when he returned to his home and was confronted with the aftermath of the bombardment.

“One of the hardest moments that I can never forget was when I met with my mother for the first time [after leaving hospital]. I was thinking… should I first convey my condolences to her for my children, or for my father, or my nephews and nieces?” he said.

“After some days, I went to the graveyard with my brother. I thought I heard my two-year-old son, Abd al-Aziz, calling me, saying: ‘Baba, I am alive. Come in and get me out of the grave.’

“I told my brother that; he hugged me and told me that my son had been buried more than 50 days earlier.”

Silk and his wife decided to move out of their bombed-out home in east Gaza to live with his mother and three sisters, also in Shujaiya.

“I can’t live in my house without my children. I can’t even imagine it without their hustle and bustle,” he said.

Silk and his wife are no longer able to have children, as one of his testes was removed due to injuries, and the cost of IVF treatment, over $2,500, is out of their reach.

In 2021, another Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip destroyed the Kuhail building where Mohammed worked. The six-storey building housed offices and learning centres, some of them affiliated with the nearby Islamic University of Gaza. 

With his livelihood stripped away, the amputee now makes ends meet as an Uber driver.

“They killed my children, bombed my library, which was my sole source of income, and deprived me of having new children. It’s a catastrophe in all ways. I can’t bear more suffering. Alhamdulillah  [praise be to God] for everything.”

The paramedics

Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza lasted from 8 July to 26 August, killing 2,251 Palestinians including 1,462 civilians. In Israel, 67 soldiers were killed and six civilians.

Aside from the destruction of 18,000 homes and hundreds of permanently disabled civilians, Gaza’s medical infrastructure also suffered severe losses, with damage reported on 73 hospitals and ambulances and a number of medical staff killed.

When Silk’s family home was bombed, paramedic Ibrahim Abu al-Kas arrived at the scene within minutes, right after his colleague Abd al-Razak al-Beltagy.

“When I entered the building, the bombs started raining down on us. I hid under the stairs with a 17-year-old, reciting prayers and waiting for my end.

“Then I saw Al-Beltagy and the two ambulances being targeted directly in front of my eyes,” said the 45-year-old father of seven.

Losing Beltagy was an unbearable reality for Kas to come to terms with.

“He wasn’t just my colleague; he was my brother and father. We did almost all our shifts together, and I lost him in a flash. I couldn’t even attend his funeral due to the demand of our work,” Kas said.

Despite hundreds of calls being sent out from the bombarded neighbourhood asking for help, Kas had been told by the Red Cross that Israel would not allow medical staff to enter the area to help the wounded.

“At 9am, after almost four hours of waiting for the green light, which Israel didn’t give us, we finally decided to enter with two ambulances.”

He recalls the stench of blood in the air, homes heavily damaged, and the street deliberately targeted to stop ambulances from passing.

“After I’m not sure how long, many more ambulances arrived, and we started transporting the dead bodies and the injured.”

Amid the chaos and cries for help, including from his own relatives, Kas tried to stick to his work protocol and rescue women and children first.

Then he saw the dead bodies of colleague Fouad Jaber and journalist Khalid Hamad lying in the street. Hamad had been filming next to Jaber, who was rescuing people.

Kas told MEE that, although he had managed to carry on with his life despite the memories of the attack, he would always remember the moment when he hid under the stairs of Silk’s home, waiting for his life to end.

The retired police officer

During 23-25 July, amid the bombardment of Shujaiya, the Israeli army attacked the town of Khuzaa, east of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza strip, close to the border with Israel.

A few of the town’s 10,000 population managed to flee, but others like the Kodeih family were stuck and in hiding.

Wissam Kodeih, a 44-year-old retired police officer, and his three brothers took shelter in their neighbour’s house along with 13 other men.

In the house opposite, his 59-year-old mother Rasmia and his 67-year-old father Salem were hiding with nearly 50 other women and children.

It was Ramadan, and on 24 July while Kodeih was having the pre-dawn Suhoor meal, his 18-year-old brother Ahmed took some food to his mother in the other house.

Suddenly, bombs struck the neighbourhood, hitting the two houses where the Kodeih family had sought refuge.

Kodeih said the Israeli army surrounded the house he was in with bulldozers shortly after the bombardment. He was then blindfolded, with hands tied, and separated from his brothers and others in the house.

“I told the soldiers I wanted to see my mother and father or I wouldn’t move a step. They refused; one of them hit me with his gun butt and forcibly dragged me to a nearby house, where almost 200 Israeli soldiers had gathered.”

The soldiers forced Kodeih, who was bleeding from the head and the shoulder, to sit near the front door of the house for a day, behind their military dogs.

“One of the dogs was trying to get near me. So I stared into its eyes in an attempt to scare it away. But a soldier… glimpsed me and hit my head with his military boots,” he said.

When night fell, the army rounded up him and his neighbours and drove them to an area near the Beit Hanoun crossing between Israel and Gaza.

“There were hundreds of men, some of them injured. We were sitting on the grass, our eyes were blindfolded, and our hands were tied,” he said.

“We were forced to lower our heads to our knees. Anyone who tried to untie his blindfold was beaten. Despite my bleeding, they didn’t even offer me a tissue, let alone a bandage.”

Kodeih managed to get a glimpse of his brothers while going to the toilet.

What followed was questioning that lasted four days, during which he was quizzed about his family, Hamas tunnels, and missile-launching sites.

“We were in Ramadan. The solders would give us a leaf and a cup of water to break our fast. When we went to the toilet, they wouldn’t even give us toilet paper.”

During this time, Kodeih was worried about his family, especially his wife, who didn’t know if he was alive or dead or how long his arrest would last.

“On 29 July, they allowed dozens of us to leave and told us which street we should take,” Kodeih said.

After an hour of walking, the group encountered the Red Cross, and an ambulance took Kodeih and his two brothers to al-Quds hospital in Gaza to have their injuries treated.

While in hospital, Kodeih met a relative and was told that his father had been killed in the attack. He refused to believe it was true, until he went home and saw his mother. 

Drone rockets had been dropped on the house in which his mother, father, disabled sister and 50 women and children were hiding. One of the rockets hit his father directly.

Rasmia said: “My husband’s face was completely burnt, and then he fainted. The shrapnel hit my head and my disabled daughter, killing three and injuring five women and children.”

She herself woke up in hospital four days later but then couldn’t find her husband. After speaking to one of her neighbours, she learned that Salem, and possibly her daughter too, might have been “transferred onto a carriage” in front of Al-Tawhid Mosque about 800 meters from their home.

What Rasmia did not know at the time was that the mosque was later bombed. The injured on the carriage, including Salem, were buried under the rubble and stayed there for almost a week.

On 1 August, Rasmia and her sons returned to their home to look for Salem and 18-year-old Ahmed. They were directed by locals to the mosque and began searching under the rubble.

“Soon, we found the remnants of the carriage. After digging with our hands for 30 minutes, we found the decayed bodies of my father and my 80-year-old relative,” Kodeih said. 

With no sign of Ahmed, Kodeih went home to continue searching for his younger brother. The stench of decayed bodies and gunpowder covered his neighbourhood, where nearly all of the houses were destroyed.

“When I reached our home, I found a decayed body, then I recognized Ahmed’s shorts. It was the most shocking scene I’ve ever witnessed,” said the former police officer.

Ninety people were killed in the assault on Khuzaa, and 1,450 homes were totally destroyed or damaged.

For nearly two years after the Israeli attacks, Kodeih suffered almost daily nightmares.

“Even now after eight years, every moment of the massacre is still engraved in my memory as if it were yesterday. I can’t forget the scene of my father’s and Ahmed’s decayed bodies. I can’t forget,” he said.

Ahmed al-Sammak is a freelance journalist who lives in the Gaza Strip