The massacre that changed Gaza

More than 40 people were killed in the massacre Israel committed on Gaza City’s al-Wihda street. 

Mohammed Zaanoun ActiveStills

At this time last year, everything changed.

Residents of al-Wihda street in Gaza City used to assume that they would not be targeted by Israel. The massacre of 16 May 2021 shattered that assumption.

It introduced “a new Gaza, where everyone is at risk,” according to Saleem al-Sir, who works in a local clothing store.

Like so many others, he was caught off guard last year.

The weeks preceding the massacre had been busy in the store. A steady flow of customers called in, seeking outfits for the imminent feast of Eid al-Fitr.

“The war surprised us all,” he said. “I did not expect that al-Wihda street would be bombed. It was considered one of the safest areas in Gaza.”

Al-Sir continues to travel from his home in Shujaiya, another part of Gaza City, to al-Wihda street each morning.

“I feel sad every day when I go to work,” he said. “There were families who lived their whole lives here [on al-Wihda street]. They were living in peace and, all of a sudden, they stepped into a nightmare.”

More than 40 people were killed in the early morning massacre, which involved the sustained bombardment of two residential buildings and the surrounding area over a one-hour period. It took place on the seventh day of a major Israeli offensive against Gaza.

Growing up without a mother

Riyad Ishkintna lost his wife Abir and four of their children – Dana, Lana, Yahya and Zein – in the massacre. His daughter Suzie, then 7, was the only other survivor in their family.

“My entire life has changed in a crazy way,” Riyad said. “Words cannot describe the past year.”

The pain has been especially hard to bear at certain moments.

When Suzie began the new school year, Riyad was painfully aware of how the other children in her class were accompanied by their mothers. All he could think of telling Suzie was “your mother is looking down from heaven.”

As they walk along al-Wihda street, Suzie often points out places – such as the bakery and the park – where she used to visit with her mother.

“I used to be just her father,” he said. “Now I am her father, mother and brother. I try to compensate her for what she lost. But there is no way I can compensate for everything.”

While Riyad initially thought that he could cope with the situation, he realized after some time that he could not. He tries to distract himself by working for long periods – sometimes 10 hours a day – as a security guard in Mashtal Hotel, in the western part of Gaza City.

“Even though I survived, it feels like my dreams have been snatched away from me,” he said. “My children are not numbers. I used to think a lot about their futures and make plans for them.”

Al-Wihda street runs through al-Rimal, the commercial hub of Gaza City. That district was bombed much more in May last year than it had been during the three other major Israeli attacks on Gaza since December 2008.

“Painful memories”

Alaa Abu al-Ouf lost two of his daughters – Shayma and Rawan – both young adults, in the massacre on al-Wihda street. His wife Diana al-Yaziji subsequently died from her injuries.

Many members of his extended family were also killed.

At first, he was unable to believe what had happened.

“I thought it was a nightmare and that I would wake up,” he said. “Then I realized that I was awake and alone.”

Alaa works at a small grocery store. Although that store is located on al-Wihda street, he tries to avoid passing by the building where his family came under attack.

“The whole street holds a lot of painful memories,” he said.

His daughter Shayma and her sister Maysa – who survived the attack – were both preparing to get married last year.

Maysa’s wedding was originally scheduled for later in May. It was postponed until August because of the massacre.

When the ceremony took place, the family experienced a “forced happiness mixed with lots of sadness,” Alaa said. He added that Israel broke Maysa’s heart “as she saw her sister – they were very close – and her mother dying.”

Alaa has found accommodation for the surviving members of his immediate family with the help of a monthly payment from the United Nations Development Programme worth approximately $250.

“We are trying to get back to normal,” he said. “But what is normal? They [the Israelis] have stolen our homes and our lives.”

“Still in shock”

Samar Riyad, a resident of al-Wihda street, recalled how she tried to calm her family as it became apparent her neighborhood was being targeted.

“I told my children to go to sleep,” she said. “But that was pointless. Nobody could sleep. I felt that there were explosions nearby but I could not believe our street was under attack. I thought it was somewhere else.”

“Then the place became very dark,” she added. “The electricity was cut. I could hear our neighbors screaming. My husband went outside to check what had happened [when the bombing stopped]. I heard him scream that our neighbors were killed.”

Her neighbors included the Abu al-Ouf and al-Qawlaq families.

More than 20 members of the al-Qawlaq extended family were killed in the massacre. Their ages ranged from six months to 90 years.

Azzam al-Qawlaq managed to escape from his home, along with his wife and their four children. They were rescued by civil defense workers, who took them out of their destroyed building via a hole in the kitchen wall.

But his brothers Izzat and Muhammad and a number of their children were among the relatives that he lost.

“My family is still in shock,” Azzam said. “They did not think that they would survive. They still have a great fear of war and will not forget their relatives. Lots of children were killed in this attack on our family.”

Ruwaida Amer and Ghada Al-Haddad are journalists based in Gaza.