To try to save his neighbors, he had to demolish his own house

Ashraf Qaisy sitting on the rubble of his home (Ahmed al-Sammak)

Walaa Sabah

Mondoweiss  /  September 3, 2022

Ashraf al-Qaisy demolished his own home to try to save the lives of his neighbors during the most recent Israeli attack on Gaza. He has no regrets even though none of them survived.

On August 6, Israel assassinated Khalid Mansour, a senior commander of the Islamic Jihad movement, along with two other fighters in Al-Shout Refugee Camp — one of Rafah’s most densely populated areas.

The raids, launched at 9:30 p.m., also killed a 14-year-old child and three women, left 50 injured, and flattened six houses, under which the bodies of the dead were entombed.

“When we arrived, screams and moans of the trapped were all over the place. We brought gardening tools, including mattocks and shovels. But the scene exceeded our expectations, as six houses were completely destroyed over the heads of their inhabitants,” said Osama Abu Muhsen, a sergeant at the Rafah Civil Defense Department. 

“We started digging and succeeded in rescuing four women, and pulled out the scattered bodies of two men. Many were trapped under the rubble, and our tools were too primitive to help. So, we called the Gaza department to send heavy vehicles and bulldozers to speed up the rescue operation.”

After two hours, the bulldozers arrived but could not reach the place due to the tiny alleys, so the Civil Defense crews asked some neighbors for permission to demolish parts of their houses.

“This is the first time we ask people to demolish their homes. After almost three hours, we pulled out two bodies — a man and his mother, hugging each other. The scene was heartbreaking,” the sergeant said. 

Ashraf Al-Qaisy, 46, a father of 6 children, was having tea with his parents 400 meters away from his house when the attack happened.

“I heard massive raids, but it never occurred to me that they would be here,” said Ashraf. “Within minutes, I received a call from my neighbour, who told me my family members had been wounded. I thought they were killed. I was crying while running to my house, which was heavily damaged. I found many of my neighbours gathering in groups. They were moving the body of Ziad Al-Modalal from my house. It still baffles me how his body flew into my asbestos roof and then fell down to the floor.”

The Civil Defense in Gaza suffers from the lack of heavy vehicles due to the Israeli siege imposed on the impoverished strip since 2007.

“If we had the needed equipment when the attacks happened, we would have been able to save many of the souls trapped during previous Israeli aggressions,” he explained.

“When I noticed that the Civil Defense crew was hesitant to demolish my house, I told them: what are you waiting for? Demolish my house now and rescue my beloved neighbors!” Al-Qaisy recalls. 

“The Civil Defense started gradually demolishing part of the outdoor space of the Taha family, then Hossam Jouda’s house, mine and finally my neighbor Marwa’s, house, who was already injured and moved to the hospital.” 

It took the Civil Defence almost 45 minutes to demolish the houses. 

“I watched my house being demolished. I felt bitterness in my heart and was left feeling helpless. The only thing I was sure of is that our houses can be rebuilt, but their souls cannot be regained.” 

Rescued neighbors

Muhammad Al-Modalal was nearby at a neighbor’s house when the rockets hit the building where his wife Suhad and 1-year old son Fouad were heading to sleep.

“I saw a huge flame of fire followed by a bomb, scattered stones, and shrapnel. In less than a minute, three missiles hit the same building,” Muhammad said. “I rushed to see Suhad and Fouad, but mass destruction left the alleys filled with rubble, which hindered me from reaching my house.”

Wiping his tears, the stricken father started remembering the scene of his wife and child trapped under the rubble. “Our 3-story adjoining house was targeted and flattened. The third story in which I used to live was completely destroyed. I tried to reach my wife and child, but the stairs were completely destroyed,” he said. 

“The Civil Defense personnel, along with my neighbors and I, we began to climb the stairs to reach my apartment, which had turned into rubble in the blink of an eye, under which Suhad and Fouad were trapped. I called out to her loudly, but she didn’t reply.”

After 30 minutes of digging with their hands and makeshift tools, they found them in critical condition and were able to save them. None of Ashraf Al-Qaisy’s other neighbors were as lucky. The heavy machinery needed to demolish the houses and reach others under the rubble took too long to arrive from Gaza City, which is approximately one hour away. Even though some of the trapped had survived the initial explosion, they lost their lives waiting to be rescued from the rubble. Suhad was one of the lucky few who was rescued before the Civil Defense was able to bring its heavy machinery, and before any house had to be demolished.

No regrets

Tears streaming down his weary face, Ashraf Al-Qaisy is looking for his childhood photo album under the rubble of his house.

“These photos were taken when I was a baby. They are so precious to my heart. It was not only the stones that were demolished, but the memories also were wiped out.” 

“My heart was broken to see my neighbors under the rubble. If I could go back in time I would make the same decision again. The lives of my beloved neighbors are worth it,” he insists. 

He works 12 to 15 hours a day as a vendor, makes less than five dollars. Locals in the area rented a house for his family and paid for it. Although destitute, Al-Qaisy sacrificed his house to rescue those trapped under the rubble.

Walaa Sabah is a freelance journalist from Gaza, and the outreach officer at We Are Not Numbers, a project of Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor