The clock was approaching 11:30 in the morning. For children in Gaza, it was the last day in school before a new year holiday. The bell was due to ring shortly.
At 11:27 am on 27 December 2008, Gaza was bombarded by Israeli warplanes. Instead of the anticipated school bell, the children heard the horrifying sound of bombs.
Operation Cast Lead – which began that day – was Israel’s most comprehensive onslaught on Gaza in decades. Israel used its air force, navy, infantry and artillery against a population that already had a long experience of being under military occupation and, more recently, under siege.
By the end of the offensive more than three weeks later, Israel had committed numerous massacres and used phosphorous bombs to target heavily populated areas and even shelled United Nations schools and the main UN food aid warehouse.
Israel paid $10.5 million in “compensation” for some of the damage caused. Yet it never apologized for slaughtering the innocent or targeting the UN schools that harbored hundreds of Palestinian families.
In 23 days, Israel killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 1,100 civilians, of whom 326 were children and 111 were women. It also injured about 5,300, some of whom remain disabled to this very day, and destroyed or damaged thousands of homes.
Yasser Ashour, now studying journalism in Istanbul, survived the attack to become an influential social media activist and a writer on Palestine. He was 14 at the time of the offensive. There were moments when he felt life had no meaning – especially after seeing in person or on TV scores of defenseless Palestinians, including some friends, killed during Israeli strikes.
“I was preparing myself for my final exams,” Ashour told The Electronic Intifada. “Then I heard massive explosions coming from everywhere. Then many other explosions followed. And it continued for 23 days.”
Ashour believes the timing of the Israeli raids was carefully chosen, he said, “to maximize the number of casualties and terrorize Palestinians.”
Ashour was part of a huge wave of schoolchildren who ran home in a situation of extreme fear.
He saw vans and lorries carrying the disfigured bodies of people killed by Israel. Today, he remains haunted by those images.
Ashour’s worst memories of that time period come from when Israel targeted his school and the surrounding area.
Located in Jabaliya refugee camp, that school – known as al-Fakhoura – was shelled by Israel on 6 January 2009. At the time, it was providing shelter to people who had to flee their homes.
Yet three days earlier, according to Judge Richard Goldstone’s “Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict,” Israel had warned Palestinians “to move to central locations and attend United Nations centers.”
The next day, John Ging, UNRWA director of operations in Gaza, said during a press conference: “There is nowhere safe in Gaza. Everyone here is terrorized and traumatized.”
“I was one of the lucky few,” Ashour said. “When we evacuated our house, we did not have to go to UN schools. My mother distributed our family among several relatives’ homes, so if we were hit by Israeli missiles, some of us would get to survive.”
“But I will never forget the day Israel hit my school, killing 44 civilians,” he added. “Five of them were my own classmates and friends.” Defense for Children International - Palestine noted that 14 children were killed in “close proximity” to the school. Ashour remembered shrapnel injuring people inside the school.
“The next day,” he recalled, “I defied my mother’s pleas and participated in the funerals. It was the least I could do. Those kids that Israel butchered were full of life and full of potential.”
Although Israel claimed it targeted Hamas militants, a UN inquiry into the al-Fakhoura massacre found there was no firing from within the school and no explosives within the school.
The UN relief agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, “had given Israel the exact locations of all schools sheltering civilians,” Ashour noted. “Israel targeted the school on purpose, to terrorize us.”
Ever since the massacre, Ashour has tried to honor the memories of his classmates by exposing Israeli crimes.
“I run a few Twitter accounts with tens of thousands of followers,” he said. “The battle for justice for Palestine over social media is crucial and we have to win it. We don’t have Israel’s billions but we have the power of truth.”
“He never came back”
Nirvana Modad, 20, lost her father, uncle and a cousin when Israeli drones targeted a funeral tent near her home in the Shujaiya neighborhood of Gaza City.
Nirvana’s father wanted her to be a physician. “I always wanted to become a doctor to save lives and to fulfill my dad’s dream,” she said. Nirvana is studying medicine at Al Azhar University in Gaza.
Alaa Modad, her father, had just gone to the shops to buy groceries.
“My dad sent the stuff he bought home to us with my sister and went to pay his respect to a neighbor killed by Israel whose funeral tent was around the corner,” Nirvana said. “And he never came back.”
While Alaa was visiting it, the funeral tent was hit by two missiles fired from an Israeli drone. That was two days before the end of the offensive.
As mourners in the tent scrambled for cover, several more missiles kept coming. Nine Palestinians were killed on the spot. Many others were injured.
“To me, Israel kills my father every day,” Nirvana said. “I am reminded of him by my medicine books, by my mother’s hard work, by the melancholy that has overwhelmed our home ever since [his death]. And every time Israel kills a Palestinian.”
Her family has continued to suffer because of Israeli state violence.
In 2014, Nirvana’s cousin, Nisma Modad, lost her father during another massive Israeli offensive.
“We escaped the 2008 war by a miracle,” said Nisma. “But in 2014 Israel killed my father. And God knows who Israel will kill next.”
“Sense of panic”
Ahmed Sheikh Khalil is now aged 19.
As he made his way home from school on the first day of Operation Cast Lead, “I saw smoke coming from every direction of Gaza City,” he said. “The explosions were shaking the ground beneath us. There was a sense of panic everywhere. I remember women running in the opposite direction, asking about their kids and telling us not to worry.”
One of Khalil’s cousins was killed in the attack.
“The scene of hundreds of people taking refuge in the UN school nearby haunted me for months,” Khalil said. “It was like what we see on TV happening to other people or happening a long time ago.”
“Like most kids in Gaza, I wanted to be a doctor,” Khalil told The Electronic Intifada. “But after that war and after every assault on Gaza, I realized I could help my people in other ways.”
As Khalil grew up, he became interested in media and journalism. Following another major Israeli attack on Gaza during the summer of 2014, he decided to study English.
“I want to reach and inform people from all over the world and not only Arabs or Muslims,” Khalil said.
The Islamic University of Gaza, where Khalil studies English literature, had many of its laboratories destroyed by Israeli missiles in 2009.
The office of Khalil’s father, who teaches history and politics at the university, was also destroyed.
“When the Israelis hit the Islamic University of Gaza, they claimed they targeted a chemical weapons lab,” Khalil said.
“It was hilarious, despite the tragedy. We joked about my father’s office harboring banned chemicals. But in all seriousness, it amazed me how Israel can lie and make up stories and still manage to deceive the world. I want to do something about this.”
“Too much to ask?”
Amira al-Qirim lost her father and two siblings during Operation Cast Lead.
All three were left to bleed and die. No ambulance was allowed near them.
Herself injured in the attack and unable to walk, Amira crawled and hid in a neighbor’s home. She was found there in a hungry and weak condition three days later.
Amira is now a stay at home mother of two children.
“As a kid who survived that war, and the two others that followed, I volunteered for the media to expose Israel,” she said.
“I traveled to Europe for medical treatment. I spoke to people everywhere about my ordeal,” Amira added.
“I sought justice by filing a complaint to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. But here we are nine years later and Israel still commits crimes every single day, and justice has not yet been done yet.”
“I want my kids to live in peace,” she said. “I want every kid in Palestine to grow up without the possibility that Israel will kill them, or maim them, or orphan them, or traumatize them. Is that too much to ask?”
Refaat Alareer is the editor of Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine. He teaches world literature and creative writing at the Islamic University of Gaza. Twitter: @ThisIsGaza
Ahmed Abd El-Al is a freelance journalist based in Gaza. He writes for Al Jazeera Arabic. Twitter: @ahmedabdall1