GAZA CITY As Israeli airstrikes hit Gaza for the sixth night running, Dr. Ayman Abul Ouf climbed the stairs of the apartment block that his family built four decades ago, quieter than it seemed all day. The Abul Ouf building, located in a wealthy commercial neighborhood on Al Wahda Street, was the last place he thought Israel would hit.
He returned to his third-floor apartment at midnight after a 16-hour day running the coronavirus team at Gaza’s largest hospital. He could hear the bombs, but mostly from the TV in his living room. His affluent neighborhood was considered so safe that in wars relatives passing by elsewhere in Gaza awaited the bombing of his apartment.
In the adjoining room, his son Tawfiq, an elderly man in a high school, was studying for a science exam. One floor below, Dr.’s father. Abul Oufs, a scientist also named Tawfiq, was making a meal late at night. Upstairs, his cousin’s daughter, Shaimaa, a dental student, was texting her fiancé.
A few minutes later, everyone was dead.
Around 1 a.m. Sunday, May 16, an Israeli airstrike killed 21 of the 38 people in the building that night. A 22-year-old resident died from her injuries nearly three weeks later.
The Israeli military said the target of the attack was not the apartment building, but a tunnel under the road in front of it.
In a conflict in which both sides are accused of war crimes, the airstrike on Al Wahda Street that night is notable for the staggering number of civilian deaths and the near-destruction of entire families. The attack, which also destroyed another apartment building on the street, was the single deadliest episode in the last 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, killing a total of 44 people.
A fragile ceasefire was tested this week after militants sent incendiary balloons to Israel and Israel responded with airstrikes.
But the Al Wahda raid remains iconic in the debate over whether Israel, by hitting what it said were legitimate military targets, could have avoided killing civilians. And to what extent Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, also bears responsibility for digging up military infrastructure under cities.
What is not disputed is that the thriving community, mostly the upper middle class that inhabited the five-story Abul Ouf building was destroyed in an instant. The block housed the families of a doctor, a scientist, a waiter, a shopkeeper and a psychologist. For the family that owned it Abul Oufs embodied 40 years of hopes and aspirations.
There are still many memories there, said Riad Ishkontana, a 42-year-old waiter who lost his wife and four of their five children. But the Israeli bombing buried them.
The conflict began a few days ago, shortly after 6pm on May 10, when Hamas fired half a dozen rockets at Jerusalem. Hamas said it was responding to Israeli actions in East Jerusalem, including police raids on the Aqsa Mosque and the planned expulsion of provocations by Palestinian residents, he said, demanding a strong reprimand.
The Hamas rocket attack, which experts say was likely to constitute a war crime because it targeted civilian areas, prompted Israel to return fire with airstrikes. Israel soon focused on a network of tunnels that Hamas used to transfer weapons and undisclosed fighters.
In an interview, an Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, said that on the morning of May 16, several Israeli planes fired 11 missiles along a 200-yard stretch of Al Wahda Road, aiming to destroy a tunnel and command center beneath it. . The drone video filmed shortly afterwards by the Israeli army showed a string of craters left on the road by GPS-guided bombs.
But while most of the adjacent buildings stood, the Abul Ouf Building collapsed in what the official described as a strange event.
The military did not know the exact location of the command center, nor how long it lasted under nearby buildings, said Colonel Conricus. When the bombs exploded deep underground, they suddenly moved the foundations of the Abul Ouf Buildings, he added.
Colonel Conricus said the military, the Israel Defense Forces, is taking every reasonable measure to prevent damage to civilian life and property.
Despite the fact that Hamas deliberately builds its underground military infrastructure under civilian buildings, he said, whenever possible the IDF strikes this infrastructure by hitting open areas while trying to prevent damage near buildings.
Hamas has agreed to build a network of tunnels under Gaza for military purposes, but at a news conference on May 26, Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas’ political wing in Gaza, denied that any of them were located under civilian areas, dismissing the accusation that unfounded.
However, the United Nations believes that Hamas built at least one military tunnel under it a UN school.
Rights experts said the use of such powerful weapons in a dense urban environment endangers the lives of civilians and was a potential war crime. And if Hamas installed military facilities under populated areas, it too was a potential war crime.
The owners of the buildings, the Abul Ouf family, lived in Gaza before the arrival of thousands of Palestinian refugees after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, giving them an elevated social status. Dr. Abul Ouf, 50, headed the internal medicine department at Shifa Hospital.
His father, Tawfiq Abul Ouf, 80, was for decades a senior chemist at an oil company in the Emirates, relatives said. The doctors’ cousin, Raja, who lived with her four children in a third-floor apartment, was a psychologist.
The address is a well-known address, said Muhammad al-Shanty, 29, who runs a bakery opposite. When calling a taxi, you might say: Take me to the Abul Ouf building.
Like many Gaza residents, most of the residents of the buildings had never left the belt. An Israeli-Egyptian blockade, imposed after Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007, has largely limited Gaza residents to one of the world’s most populous lands. It has also contributed to major shortages of fuel and electricity: Even the Abul Ouf Building received power for only eight hours a day.
Still, its inhabitants had dreams. The doctors’ son, Tawfiq, hoped to study chemistry in college, his brother said. His second cousin, Shaimaa, was just two months away from her wedding.
Abul Oufs moved to the area in 1960, the family said. Ismail Abul Ouf, the patriarch of the family, had made a great fortune by producing pastries and trading real estate. He bought a villa with a large yard in Rimal, then a mostly undeveloped area on the edge of Gaza City.
In the early 1980s, as his family grew, he tore down the villa and built the block now known as the Abul Ouf Building. At the time of the airstrike, it housed eight apartments, including five used by Abul Oufs.
After the Oslo Accords, interim peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinian exiled leadership were signed in the 1990s, the old Palestinian leaders returned to Gaza, bringing in a flurry of investment. Tall buildings appeared across Rimal. Suddenly, it became a large shopping district.
This excitement turned to darkness in the 2000s, after Hamas, which does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, won the election, then took power in Gaza. This separated the enclave from the occupied West Bank and led to several wars with Israel.
Through all, the Abul Ouf complex remained a shrine, awaiting relatives from the most dangerous parts of Gaza.
We have gone through many wars, said Omar Abul Ouf, the 16-year-old boy doctor, but our country is always safe.
After staying late in the hospital, Dr. Abul Ouf was knocked down near his apartment that night by an ambulance driver. The doctor looked cheerful, happy he was going home, said the driver.
Half an hour later, the doctor was lying in front of the TV on a mattress he had pulled from a bedroom, Omar recalled. When the airstrike began, Omar instinctively jumped to his feet, grabbed his younger sister, Tala, 12, and pulled her into the hallway.
His father was still lying on the mattress. Then the building collapsed.
Shaimaa Abul Oufs fiancé Anas al-Yazji lived nearby and heard the blasts.
Hide, he texted Shaimaa.
The message never reached her phone.
Tala died in the arms of Omars as they hugged under the rubble.
Rescuers found them Sunday afternoon, 12 hours later. Of the five family members living in Dr.’s apartment. Abul Oufs, only Omar survived.
Mr Ishkontana, who lived on the fourth floor, is a descendant of refugees who fled to Gaza in 1948. This was the second time his family had lost their home in three generations, he said.
Abeer Abdel Aal, 38, cousin of Dr. Abul Oufs, lives in an apartment so close to her ruined relatives in the building, that she passed food to them through a narrow alley.
By Dr. Abul Ouf is now dead. The Abul Ouf building is gone. And with it, four decades of family history.
It feels like a tree that has been cut down, she said.
Soliman Hijjy contributed to the report.
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