The al-Kawlaks, a family of four generations living next door to each other in downtown Gaza City, were utterly unprepared for the inferno.
Like others, they were terrified by the heavy bombing in Israel’s fourth war with Gaza’s Hamas rulers that began May 10. The explosions felt more powerful than in previous fighting. At night, parents and children slept in one room so they would live or die together.
Yet the relatively well-to-do Rimal neighborhood where the family lived in a cluster of apartment buildings seemed somewhat safer than areas along Gaza’s border with Israel, which had been devastated in this and past fighting.
Then one night disaster struck. Azzam al-Kawlak’s four children had gone to bed, and he and his wife were preparing to join them.
At around 1 a.m. on May 16, a thunderous boom shook his top-floor apartment, followed quickly by a second and third. “The floor cracked below our feet and the furniture was thrown to the wall,” the 42-year-old engineer said.
The four-story building collapsed, with Azzam’s apartment dropping to the ground. The family escaped through the kitchen balcony, now almost ground level. Bizarrely, the laundry hanging on a clothesline seemed untouched.
It took a day for the full horror to emerge, as bodies and survivors were pulled from the rubble. The family and neighbors used ropes to clear chunks of concrete, working alongside ill-equipped rescue teams.
By nightfall, the family’s death toll stood at 22. Eight bodies were dug out of Azzam’s building and 14 from the one next door. The dead included 89-year-old family patriarch Amin, his son Fawaz, 62, his grandson Sameh, 28, and his great-grandson, 6-month-old Qusai.
Just a day earlier, Qusai’s parents had celebrated a small milestone, his first tooth. Azzam’s two younger brothers were killed. Three nieces — 5-year-old Rula, 10-year-old Yara and 12-year-old Hala — were found in a tight embrace, their bodies the last to be pulled out, said Azzam’s surviving older brother, Awni.
The bombing along several hundred meters (yards) of al-Wahda Street took just minutes. In all, it brought down three houses — two in the al-Kawlak compound and one nearby — and killed a total of 43 people, making it the single deadliest air raid of the 11-day war.
Israel said the target was a Hamas tunnel underneath the street, part of what it called a roughly 350-kilometer-long (220-mile) underground network. The tunnels served offensive and defensive purposes, military officials said, accusing Hamas of using civilians as human shields.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said during a war-time briefing that the military target in Rimal collapsed, causing nearby houses and their supporting structures to collapse as well. “That caused a large amount of civilian casualties, which were not the aim,” he said.
He said the army was reviewing the incident and “adjusting the analysis and the ordnance used in the future” to prevent similar events from occurring again. “It’s not a totally mathematic exercise in choosing the ordnance,” he said.
He said Israel carried out dozens of airstrikes in areas just as densely populated, with far fewer casualties.