Painful memories of May 2021 

The children Rakan and Nisreen hold a photograph of their father Mahmoud al-Madhoun, who was killed by Israel in May 2021. 

Ahmed Al-Sammak

Alaa al-Batran had just given birth to a boy, with blond hair and blue eyes. She and her husband Mahmoud al-Madhoun decided to call him Taim.

On 10 May 2021, Alaa left the hospital with her 2-days-old baby.

Alaa first went to her mother’s home in central Gaza. It is common for Palestinian women to stay with and receive help from their own mothers after giving birth.

Mahmoud, 30, opted to stay with his father in Beit Lahiya, near Gaza’s northern boundary with Israel.

Mere hours later, Israel launched a major attack on Gaza.

It was a ferocious offensive, occurring as locals prepared for Eid al-Fitr.

While everyone knew that it would be too dangerous to celebrate the holiday as they had originally planned, many people were determined it should be marked in some way. Mahmoud was one of them.

On 12 May he visited the home of his parents-in-law, spending time with his new baby and his two other children Rakan and Nisreen.

Then he went back to Beit Lahiya. His intention was to fetch clothes for Eid – which would begin that evening – and bring them to his family.

Around 1 pm that day, Mahmoud was in the doorway of his father’s house in Beit Lahiya, when he was struck in the head by shrapnel. Israel had fired two missiles at the surrounding area.

Mahmoud’s father – who has subsequently died from COVID-19 – managed to bundle his body into a car. His father rushed to try and find medical assistance.

Initially, Mahmoud was brought to Kamal Radwan hospital in Beit Lahiya but then transferred to al-Shifa, the largest hospital in Gaza City.

Still recovering from a cesarean delivery, Alaa was not strong enough to visit her husband when she heard of his injuries.

But on 14 May, she had a terrible premonition and insisted on going to see him. Setting out on foot, she eventually found a taxi that took her to al-Shifa.

Mahmoud was in the intensive care unit when she saw him.

“When I spoke to a doctor, he told me that only a miracle would save Mahmoud,” she said. “I hugged Mahmoud and whispered to him: ‘Don’t leave us. Who will take care of us if you’re not here?’”

Alaa did not stay long at the hospital.

Soon after she returned to her mother’s home, she received a call from her brother. He told her the terrible news: Mahmoud had died.

A journalism graduate, Mahmoud had found that the opportunities available to him in Gaza were extremely narrow. To feed his family, he worked in construction.

He frequently put in 13-hour days for $10 pay. “All he wanted from life was to meet our needs,” Alaa said.

Alaa has done what she can to keep Mahmoud’s memory alive.

In his honor, she changed the name of their newborn baby from Taim to Mahmoud. Last year, she got married to Mahmoud’s brother Yusif; five months ago, Alaa gave birth to another son.

Yusif is now the stepfather of his brother’s children. “I love and take care of them,” he said. “It is like they are my own children.”

No escape from horrors

Today – in May 2023 – Israel is once again bombarding Gaza. The latest attack will inevitably trigger many painful memories of what occurred two years ago.

On 12 May 2021, the barber Muawiya al-Wahidi was in his Gaza City salon, when an Israeli warplane attacked a car in front of it. A number of people were killed, others were wounded.

One of those injured in the explosion rushed to the salon, breeding profusely. The man, Nader al-Ghazali, was a neighbor of al-Wahidi and worked as a tailor.

Al-Wahidi went outside with his neighbor, leading him to a nearby pharmacy. Before they reached the pharmacy, the neighborhood was hit by another missile.

Nader al-Ghazali was killed.

Al-Wahidi was injured in the head and back, going deaf in one ear. His right leg had to be amputated and he has undergone a series of operations on his left leg.

He now receives treatment five days a week.

With Gaza’s healthcare facilities under severe strain, it has proven impossible to have all the shrapnel removed from al-Wahidi’s head. He is often in acute pain as a result.

Al-Wahidi did not receive any financial compensation or allowances from following his injuries.

“For 18 months, I depended on charities,” he said. “In the past, I used to buy the most beautiful clothes for my children at Eid. But last Eid, the only way I could get new clothes for my children was by asking a charity.”

A few months ago, al-Wahidi reopened the salon he has run for more than two decades. He resumed work, using a chair designed for him by a local organization.

Muawiya al-Wahidi has resumed working as a barber, though for much less money than before the May 2021 attack. 

Ahmed Al-Sammak

Going back to work has not improved matters.

“I have lost 80 percent of my customers,” he said. “I only have two or three customers per day.” Before he was injured, al-Wahidi made almost $20 each day. Now, his daily income can be as low as $4 or $5.

Two years on, he cannot escape from the horrors of 12 May 2021. “Every time I enter the salon, all the memories come back to me,” he said.

Target bank

More than 250 Palestinians were killed during the May 2021 attack on Gaza. Of them, at least 67 were children.

The attack caused devastation to the economy.

Around 450 businesses were totally destroyed. Many others were damaged.

One striking feature of the attack was that Israel targeted al-Rimal, the commercial hub of Gaza City.

Some of the neighborhood’s tallest and best-known buildings were reduced to rubble. Among them were the Shorouq tower.

Ahmad al-Mughni heads a committee working towards the tower’s reconstruction. He owned three offices in the building, with a combined value estimated at $240,000.

“I used to be a landlord,” he said. “The bombing of the tower turned me into a tenant.”

Residents of the tower have been promised aid to help them rent and furnish new homes. “But we didn’t even get a food voucher,” al-Mughni said.

It was not the first time that al-Mughni witnessed the destruction of his property.

In a previous major attack on Gaza during the summer of 2014, Israel destroyed a multi-story house that he owned.

“I still haven’t got all of the compensation for 2014,” he said.

The Israeli military tried to excuse its bombing of Shorouq tower by claiming that Hamas operated inside it. Al-Mughni insists that the building was part of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure.

“They [the Israelis] bombed streets and residential areas,” he said. “That was their target bank.”

Ahmed Al-Sammak is a journalist based in Gaza.