The Guardian / July 28, 2021
During the 11-day war between Israel and Palestinian militants in May 2021, Israeli airstrikes destroyed five multi-storey towers in the heart of Gaza City. The images of buildings crumbling to the ground flashed across TV channels around the world as Gaza faced the most intense Israeli offensive since 2014. At least 256 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children, and 13 in Israel, including two children. Israel claimed it was destroying the military capabilities of Hamas, who had fired rockets at Israel after weeks of tension in Jerusalem over the planned displacement of Palestinian residents and police raids on al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan.
Each time Israel said it was targeting Hamas and that it had warned the residents first. But what is it like to have only a few minutes to evacuate before watching your life collapse into rubble ?
In conjunction with the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars, the Guardian spoke with dozens of residents and gathered footage and photos to piece together the story of one building, Al-Jalaa tower, demolished by an Israeli airstrike on 15 May 2021. These are the stories from inside the tower, of the Mahdi clan, who owned and lived in the building, the Jarousha family and the Hussein family.
with Joe Dyke and Anas Baba (in Gaza); interactive by Garry Blight
The story of Al-Jalaa tower
The upscale Rimal area of Gaza City and its multi-storey towers had suffered since the bombing began. Though Al-Jalaa was thought to be safe, night-long bombing had terrified its residents, who struggled to sleep. Fearing the impact of blasts, families had been sleeping in hallways away from the windows.
Al-Jalaa tower was built in 1994 as part of a property boom sparked by the landmark Oslo peace agreements between the Palestinians and Israelis.
The first five floors were offices, with floors six to 10 inhabited by families. On floor 11, the top floor, were the Gaza offices of the Associated Press and Al-Jazeera, two of the world’s largest media companies. The ground floor had two levels of shops and beneath it was a car park.
Many of the residents came from the Mahdi family, including the building’s owner Jawad and his son Mohammed.
After each marriage in the Mahdi clan the new family settled into the tower. Jawad, 68, had traded in Israel before 2007 when the Jewish state blockaded Gaza after the Islamist group Hamas seized control of the territory. Since then he has run his clothes company in Gaza.
The whole family had huddled together into a few apartments on the sixth floor for safety, but were about to be scattered as they rushed to evacuate.
Warning the residents
With his father on the phone, Mohammed races through the building to warn residents. His first stop is the sixth floor, where most of the Mahdi family had been staying.
“I went to every house in the building and screamed, ‘they’re going to strike the building, leave now!’” says Mohammed. He tells them they don’t even have time to pack up their things.
On the ninth floor he reaches the door of the Jarousha family. Mohannad and Suzanne and their two young daughters have lived in the building for seven years, with the two girls knowing no other home. For them the tower operates like an extended family as all the residents know and look out for one another.
Mohannad is out so Suzanne and the girls are alone when they hear the knocking. “I was freaked out as I heard them banging on all the doors next to us as well,” Suzanne says. “I opened the door and said ‘what’s happening?’ He told me ‘we have less than an hour.’”
Panicking, Suzanne grabs her daughters and rushes for the front door, fighting her way down nine sets of stairs with the kids and just two emergency suitcases they had packed at the beginning of the war.
“The way people looked – until now, I still can’t shake it from my mind. People screaming – my daughters screaming. I didn’t know how to go down, I had this fear deep inside. My heart was crying as I was going down those stairs.”