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‘We stepped on the bodies of our neighbours’: Gaza journalist recounts 'horrific' airstrike aftermath

Smoke and flames rising from buildings in Gaza. Source: EPA

Video journalist Fady Hossum says his family was unaware that their neighbourhood in the heart of Gaza was being bombed until they saw the carnage unfolding outside their building.

The family resides on Al-Wahda Street, where 52 Palestinians were killed in Israeli airstrikes on Sunday. 

“It was half-past one in the morning. I was reading the news about the Israeli prime minister promising US President Biden not to target civilians. I thought it was a missile far away, but then we started to see the fire from the windows,” he told SBS Arabic24. 

“My family and I ran to the hallway as we don't have bomb shelters.”

SBS News: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict explained

Smoke and flames rise following an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City on Sunday.

Mr Hossum said the residents of the neighbourhood who had not been affected during previous Israeli military operations were professionals, medical workers and businesspeople.

He said the 40 tenants of his building experienced "horrific trauma" following the airstrikes as children could be heard crying, while the adults ran to investigate the carnage occurring outside. 

“When the bombing stopped, people were all scattered and confused. We decided to send my brother and our neighbour outside to check the situation. They came back crying, our neighbours’ building was flattened,” he explained.

SBS News: As decades-old tensions spiral out of control, what is the endgame for Hamas and Israel?

The deadly day occurred as hostilities between Israeli forces and Palestinian fighters continued to rage across the week in the Gaza Strip.

On Friday, the Israeli government and the two main Palestinian armed groups in Gaza, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, agreed to a ceasefire.

Since May 10 when the fighting began, Palestinian health officials say 228 people have been killed in airstrikes, while Israeli authorities put the death toll to date at 12 in Israel, where rocket attacks from Hamas have caused panic.

Most rockets fired by Hamas have been intercepted by Israeli missile defence systems.

The Israel Defense Forces on Thursday said it had struck a Hamas multi-barrel rocket launcher in Gaza which was armed with five rockets set to be fired towards Israel, adding that forces would "continue to defend Israelis". 

The Gaza fighting began after weeks of rising Israeli-Palestinian tensions in East Jerusalem that culminated in clashes at a holy site revered by both Muslims and Jews.

Hamas, which controls Gaza, began firing rockets after warning Israel to withdraw from the site, triggering retaliatory airstrikes.

Mr Hossum said immediately after the airstrikes on Sunday, his family - including his elderly parents - did not know whether it would be safer to stay in the building or just leave and find a nearby shelter. 

“All 40 of us decided it isn’t safe to stay in the building, so we left. We had to step on the bodies of our neighbours. I looked across the street and found out another building was on fire and collapsing.” 

The buildings that had already collapsed were blocking the street, he recalled, and the terrified family had to shelter at the house of a relative in a nearby building.

Gaza crisis
A Palestinian boy sits at the rubble of the destroyed house of his family after israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City, 19 May 2021.

With no electricity and a weak internet connection, Mr Hossum tweeted to civil defence services and a few hours later they arrived at the scene.  

“We all helped in the rescue. At first, we were able to save a man from under the rubble and then we started recovering the bodies. 

“By 10am the next day, there were 28 bodies and as the day unfolded the number of those killed reached 52.” 

Mr Hossum spoke with a heavy heart about his neighbours that were killed in the strikes. 

“Shukri is the guy who painted my house and his nephews had a small supermarket. There’s also a female dentist who was supposed to get married next month. It’s a full-fledged massacre.”  

Doctor Ayman Abu Al-Auf, head of internal medicine at Al-Shifa medical complex, Gaza’s largest hospital, was among those killed.

He was home for a short break and was planning to go back to work. His wife, children and parents were also killed in the bombing.

Mr Hossum works as a video journalist for a number of foreign media outlets and the tower which houses his office was also decimated just days earlier. 

“Al Jawhara Tower houses the offices of the National Media Agency and other Palestinian media outlets offices and where my office was. 

“We received a call asking us to immediately evacuate. It was bombed four hours later.”  

He believes the work of local journalists in the strip was of “great importance” at a time when foreign journalists are unable to enter Gaza. 

“I am in contact with journalists in Jerusalem anxiously waiting to enter [Gaza] but the crossings are shut. Journalists must be protected. We are the fourth estate, and we report professionally.” 

COVID-19 has weakened the already fragile medical sector in the strip, he said. 

“Nearly 100 patients, mostly cancer patients, need to be admitted to hospitals in the West Bank to receive their chemotherapy and undergo critical surgeries that cannot be performed in Gaza.  

"My father is a cancer patient. He was supposed to go to Jerusalem for his chemotherapy. I know there’s a military operation, but the crossing must be open for humanitarian cases.” 

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