Horror and humiliation near Gaza’s main hospital

The area around al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City after Israeli troops finally withdrew. 

Khaled Daoud APA images

Aid deliveries have become known as “death traps” in Gaza.

Karam al-Shawwa understands why.

On 29 February, he witnessed the Flour Bag Massacre. Israel opened fire on Palestinians waiting for food on al-Rashid street, southwest of Gaza City, that day.

As a result, 118 people were killed.

Karam had been among the crowds. He and his friend Muhammad had retreated from the scene once they heard a warning to disperse from an Israeli soldier.

Soon after they had begun to move away, they saw the Israeli military attacking the crowd.

The horrific incident convinced Karam that queuing for aid was too dangerous. Yet a few days later, he found himself running toward a place where, according to news spread by word of mouth, flour was available in tonnes.

As his family had nothing left to eat, Karam felt that collecting a small amount of flour was necessary.

“Unfortunately, some of us were too late,” he said. “I saw people desperately taking some flour from the ground. The flour was mixed with sand. But these people felt it was better to take it than to go back to their families emptyhanded.”

Karam has observed some of the most terrible incidents in Israel’s current genocidal war.

His home was near al-Shifa, Gaza’s largest hospital.

When Israeli troops besieged the hospital in March (having previously attacked it on several occasions), Karam felt that he was living through a “nonstop nightmare.”

He was extremely worried about what could happen to his sister and their mother – particularly when the Israeli military seized a building across from where they lived.

As far as the al-Shawwa family could see, the Israeli forces started using that building for coordination purposes during the siege of al-Shifa and its environs.

On 20 March, the family had an extremely tough night.

It was Ramadan and although they had been fasting all day, they had no appetite in the evening. They just broke their fast with some water and dates.

“The sound of gunfire from the Israeli occupation was deafening,” Karam said.


Karam learned that the Israelis had broken into the home of his uncle, who lived next door. Manal – Karam’s mother – hastily grabbed her own family’s cash and jewelry with the aim of hiding it from the Israeli forces.

The following morning, the family tried to contact Karam’s uncle but could not reach him. They then went to his house, once they were sure that the Israeli soldiers were no longer in it.

“I was shocked by the condition of the house,” Karam said. “There wasn’t a single spot on the walls that didn’t have a bullet hole.”

It took almost a day before the family managed to get any news from Karam’s uncle. When the Israelis broke into his home, they ordered that he leave it.

Several days later, Israeli troops again entered their street in tanks.

With gunfire nearby, the six family members got down on the floor in their apartment. They crawled between rooms and sought to keep some distance from the windows.

Soon the family could hear that the Israeli soldiers had broken into apartments in the same building.

The family had heard various pieces of advice about how to respond if faced by Israeli troops. The advice was to be submissive or risk fatal consequences.

Raed, Karam’s father, has a good knowledge of Hebrew. He learned the language after making frequent visits to Israel for treatment after being diagnosed with cancer in 2007.

When Raed heard that the Israeli soldiers were very close, he stood behind the door and spoke in a loud voice.

“We are civilians, a family of six,” he said. “Myself, my wife, three sons and a daughter. Should I open the door?”

After Raed opened the door, the soldiers took him outside the apartment. They ordered him to sit on the floor with his hands raised.

The soldiers then instructed the other members of the family to leave the apartment. One by one.

Everyone complied apart from Majed, the eldest son.

Majed, who has cerebral palsy, was extremely afraid and refused to move.

His father Raed tried to tell the soldiers that Majed has a medical condition. He would not move because of fear, not because he wished to disobey, Raed explained.

Forced to strip

The soldiers split the family in two.

Majed, his sister Intisar and their mother were held in the living room. Karam, his younger brother Amr and their father were taken to the kitchen.

“They told us to take off our clothes,” Karam said. “A soldier came over to me and took my ID. After a humiliating search, they made us kneel with our hands in the air.”

The soldiers went through the apartment.

They found a box of spent bullets. The family had collected the bullets from the streets after Israeli forces had carried out an earlier ground invasion.

“The soldiers aimed their weapons at my father’s head,” Karam said. “And I was struck with the back of another weapon.”

The soldiers accused the family of storing arms for Hamas. Raed, Karam’s father, sought to assure them that the bullets were already spent and that they had actually been fired by Israeli soldiers.

But the soldiers continued to behave aggressively.

The soldiers then tied up the hands of the three men in the kitchen and blindfolded them. They were forced to stand facing the wall for about an hour, during which the soldiers searched the apartment another time.

The men were taken to the first floor of the building.

They and members of another family were ordered to hand over their IDs for inspection.

Karam was unable to comply with that order because the same soldier giving the order had already taken his ID and not returned it.

The soldier denied that he had taken the ID “and accused me of lying,” Karam said.

When the soldier asked Karam for his identity number, Karam could not provide it as he had not memorized it. He had never needed to memorize it previously.

The soldier then asked him for his name. Ten consecutive times.

After Karam had repeated his full name 10 times, the soldier gave him back his ID.

Before that moment, the family had resolved to remain in Gaza City. Now they were given no choice than to leave for the south.

They were told that they would have to be naked from the waist up as they evacuated.

The family’s displacement. 

The soldiers tried to claim that the measure was for their own safety. It would make clear to Israeli troops along the way that they were civilians.

They were then brought to the entrance of the building. There, they found Karam’s brother Majed, along with the female members of their family and a neighboring family sitting on the floor.

The soldiers gave them a number of torches. One of the torches was placed on Karam’s head.

The soldiers warned them that they must follow the demarcated route. Deviating from it would result in them being shot.

Small victory

Karam could sense his mother was troubled about something in particular. He discovered that her efforts to hide the family’s valuables had been unsuccessful.

The soldiers forced her to hand over “her gold and the family’s savings, accumulated over years of hard work,” Karam said. The soldiers even insisted that the family surrender their phones.

There were many corpses along the route that the family had to take on foot. Walking was difficult as there was a great deal of rubble with which to contend.

They repeatedly encountered Israeli tanks.

Shortly before they reached Wadi Gaza – the nature reserve which dissects the Gaza Strip – Karam was cheered up a little by his sister Intisar.

She had scored a minor victory over the Israeli military by retaining Karam’s cellphone. The Israeli soldiers had ordered her to hand over six phones for the family. They did not know that she had managed to conceal a seventh one.

Raed, their father, then contacted a friend of his in Nuseirat refugee camp, central Gaza. The friend welcomed the family to Nuseirat with jackets and blankets.

The family has been staying in Nuseirat ever since. The house in which they were first given shelter was subsequently attacked.

As a result, they had to move into a different part of Nuseirat.

A property belonging to the family after it was destroyed by Israel. 

Karam al-Shawwa

Before Israel began its current war, the family owned a few properties. They have now been destroyed.

“Everything we once cherished is now lost,” Karam said. “We are left with nothing.”

Sara Nabil Hegy is a writer from Gaza.