The Unprotected: A Gaza Family Destroyed by Israeli Bombs

By Julia Amalia Heyer and Juliane von Mittelstaedt

Photo Gallery: Death of a Family Photos
Alessio Romenzi/DER SPIEGEL

For an entire week, eight people -- women, children and an elderly man -- were trapped in their house in Gaza. They couldn't leave and nobody could help. An hour before the cease-fire, the family was wiped out by Israeli bombs.

Zaki Wahdan is looking for a head. Or a body. The remains of eight people that have to be here. The two small brothers, the grandparents, the mother, the two sisters and the little niece. So far he has found only 13 legs, with small and large feet. But how can he identify them with these feet, blackened as they are with dirt and blood?

He is standing on the rubble of his parents' house and walks around the perimeter of what was once the living room. They have to be here beneath him, underneath shredded mattresses, clothing, a child's bicycle and tons of concrete. They are so close, yet Zaki can't get to them. Had he not been detained by the Israeli military, he too would have ended up in this concrete tomb.

Zaki and his older brothers come to this mountain of concrete and rubble every day. According to Islamic tradition, the bodies must be buried as quickly as possible. But now they've been here almost two weeks; the site smells of death and there are flies buzzing around. Zaki walks across the rubble and doesn't know what to do. With a broad, good-natured face, he seems like an overgrown child. At 19, he is now the youngest son once again. But what does it mean to be a son when you no longer have any parents or grandparents?

Zaki pulls on iron bars and shakes chunks of concrete. Should he dig with his hands? A hopeless prospect. They really need a backhoe, but they are all being used elsewhere. Entire blocks have disappeared in Beit Hanoun, in the far northeastern corner of the Gaza Strip. Everything was leveled where the Wahdan family lived. The extended family owned 14 buildings, with 200 people living in them four weeks ago. Now there is nothing left but a single pile of rubble. Behind it is wasteland and the border with Israel is only a kilometer away. Beit Hanoun juts into Israel like a finger, and the Al-Burrah neighborhood, where the Wahdan family lived, is the fingertip.

Beit Hanoun's 50,000 residents have long been accustomed to Israeli tanks driving through their town. But now it has become one of the worst battlefields of this war. Some 91 people have died here, including 23 children and 22 women. And eight members of the Wahdan family.

Disproportionate Violence?

According to the United Nations, 85 percent of the dead in the Gaza Strip are civilians, while Israel puts the number at no more than 60 percent. But what do such numbers really tell us?

The case of the Wahdan family is only a footnote in this war, in which more than 2,000 people have died. But it also exemplifies how innocent civilians became victims of the conflict. The fate of the Wahdan family helps provide answers to the question many are talking about, over whether this war was commensurate.

SPIEGEL spoke with family members, with the family's friends and neighbors, with Palestinian human rights activists and with a colonel in the Israeli army. They all confirmed many details; only the army was unwilling to comment specifically on the case. Based on these statements, and with the help of chat histories, it is possible to reconstruct the last days of the eight people who died in Beit Hanoun.

The resulting image reveals that the Israeli army -- apparently knowingly -- accepted that the Wahdan family would die in this war. The family's house was bombed, even though the Israeli military must have known that an old man, three children and four women were inside. They died because they were unable to flee -- because they were prisoners in their own home.

Mistakes happen in war, and civilian deaths are often unintentional. Perhaps someone made a mistake when he dropped the bomb. But can eight deaths simply be nothing but a mistake? At what point do such incidents become acts of negligence? And when do they become war crimes?


July 8 -- THE WAR BEGINS

Most members of the Wahdan family left their houses before the operation, known in Israel as "Protective Edge," began. The situation had become turbulent, and the army was firing from the border. But Zaki's grandparents, like many Palestinians, were unwilling to leave the home where they had lived for decades. It was their most important asset, a white, three-story dwelling with plenty of room for an extended family. Behind it was a garden with olive trees and beehives.

Besides, nothing had ever happened before; the Wahdans had remained in their house during the two previous wars in Gaza. They felt safe, precisely because they were so close to the border. They were constantly under observation from the Israeli side, and drones circled in the air above them. No missiles were being fired from the Al-Burrah neighborhood where they lived. The Wahdans believed that the soldiers knew that they were peaceful people, that they were more interested in their orange trees than politics, and that they were beekeepers and construction workers, most of them unemployed. They were a family of men for whom even the small Gaza Strip was too big, which is why they rarely left Beit Hanoun.

But everything changed when the war began on July 8. On the first day, Hamas fired at least 158 rockets at Israel, and the Israelis attacked 223 targets in Gaza. Bombs were falling on Beit Hanoun every day and the neighborhood was also under artillery fire. The Wahdan family members who had stayed realized that it was now too dangerous to leave the house. Besides, they had nowhere else to go. All of Gaza was being bombed, and no place was safe.

There were 15 people in the house at the time: grandfather Zaki and his wife Suad, both in their mid-60s; father Hatim, 51, mother Bagdat, 50, and six of their sons: the two youngest children, Hussein, 10, and Ahmed, 14, as well as Zaki, 19, Mohammed, 20, Bahjat, 29, Rami, 30. And the daughter Sumoud, 22 with her one-and-a-half-year-old Ghina. Two of the father's brothers were also there.

The last family member to enter the house was Zaki's sister Zeinab, 27. She worked as a medical technologist at the nearby hospital in Beit Hanoun, where she had spent three days caring for the wounded and testing blood samples. Now she had come home to shower and get some rest. As one of the few family members with a steady income, Zeinab was paying for her father's cancer drugs. She dreamed of leaving Gaza and going to Egypt to earn a master's degree. She loved Arab pop music and Turkish TV series. She also loved her brother Zaki, who lived at home, occasionally working in construction and sometimes receiving money from their father.

Zaki and Zeinab, the two siblings, were similar -- both unmarried, happy and with a zest for life. They had grown up in Gaza and lived through two wars, and yet nothing had prepared them for what happened next.


July 17-- THE GROUND OFFENSIVE

On the evening of July 17, Zaki and his brother Ahmed were watching Al Aqsa TV, the Hamas station. Although the brothers were not Hamas followers, Al Aqsa was the only station that aired 24-hour reports on the fighting, funerals and destroyed buildings. Little Ahmed, as his brother would later remember, said: At some point, you'll be pulling me out of the rubble. And then he started crying. Soon afterwards, Israel announced that the ground offensive had begun. A Hamas spokesman went on Al Aqsa TV to declare that the soldiers would not set foot in Gaza.

The tanks rolled toward Al-Burrah the next evening, where the army suspected there were tunnels leading underneath the border. The soldiers had dropped flyers in advance and now they were using loudspeakers to order residents to leave. People quickly ran away, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. But the fighting had already begun around the Wahdans' house. It was too late. They had missed their last chance to flee.

The family called the International Committee of the Red Cross, says Zaki. The Red Cross, they knew, could help coordinate their evacuation with the Israeli army. The family was unaware that their neighborhood was now in a closed military zone. Dozens of Hamas fighters would be killed there in the next few days, as would three Israeli soldiers. This likely explains why the Wahdans could not be evacuated, surviving family members believe. The Red Cross has a policy of not commenting on individual cases.

At 10:34 p.m., Zeinab Wahdan, the eldest daughter, received the following text message from her best friend, Doha Atala, 26: Are you okay? Where are you now?

Zeinab replied: I'm in the shit. They've come in now.

Doha: Why didn't you leave the house? Is it true that tanks are shooting nearby? Zeinab responded immediately. It would be her last response for the next six days: Yes, it's close. We didn't leave the house. How could we? They're bombing like crazy. I've had enough. They should stop. How are you?

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Graphic: Destruction in the northern Gaza Strip. Zoom
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