The family of 30-year-old journalist Reema Saad gathered to sleep in a single room on Wednesday night to comfort each other as Israeli bombs rained down on Gaza.
It was the eve of Eid al-Fitr, when Muslim families celebrate the end of a month of fasting from dawn until dusk.
Over the last week, the skies of Gaza have lit up with the fire of bombed-out buildings, and children have tried to shut out the noise as they tried to drift into sleep. Since Eid began on Wednesday night, the offensive has escalated.
Gaza residents, according to social media testimony, have been calling their families abroad to send their Eid greetings, and also to say farewell, just in case they didn’t survive the night.
Reema Saad and her five-year-old son Zaid didn’t survive.
They are among at least 122 Palestinians killed by an Israeli bombing campaign, which authorities say targets Gaza-based militants. The offensive began on Monday evening.
“The strike hit the room where Reema, her husband and children were asleep,” Reema’s brother, 27-year-old Ahmad Saad told CNN. “After hours of trying to find any sign of life, we pulled out Reema’s body, and then her son Zaid. We still didn’t find her daughter’s body.”
Reema Saad was four months pregnant, her brother said, his voice faltering as he broke down into tears.
“We were told by Civil Defense that the body might have been ripped to shreds.”
Reema’s husband was critically injured in the strike and her two-year-old daughter is still missing, Saad told CNN.
An intensifying offensive
Gaza came under heavy artillery fire early Friday morning, amid reports — later conclusively denied — that the Israeli army had launched a possible ground invasion.
A CNN producer inside Gaza reported heavy incoming artillery fire from Israeli forces as well as dozens of airstrikes.
United Nations officials inside Gaza said thousands of people had fled their homes in the north and east of the enclave to seek refuge in schools — belonging to the United Nations relief agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) — which are considered designated emergency shelters.
Just a few kilometers away, residents in the Israeli town of Ashkelon were fleeing to their bomb shelters again, as sirens wailed warning of a fresh barrage of rockets launched by Gaza-based militants. Israel’s Iron Dome defense system intercepted many of those rockets. Eight Israelis have died in the rocket attacks since Monday.
Gaza, which has been under a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt since 2007, does not have an air defense system and has few bomb shelters.
Families huddled together as the tiny coastal enclave was pounded by bombardment.
“Tonight, I put the kids to sleep in our bedroom. So that when we die, we die together and no one would live to mourn the loss of one another,” tweeted Gaza school teacher, Eman Basher, on Wednesday.
Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat who is Palestinian American, read the tweet during a passionate speech Thursday on the House floor.
Seeking the protection of the UN
For Palestinians who fled to schools run by UNRWA, the sense of danger is less acute, but the scenes are chaotic.
“(Israel’s military) told us to leave our homes immediately because they wanted to strike it,” 13-year-old Sarah al-Sharif told CNN. “I couldn’t take anything with me. I was running, crying and terrified and was praying to God because I thought for sure we all will die soon, as the airstrikes rained on our heads.
“I saw shreds of bodies, buildings falling down, people were screaming everywhere and mothers were carrying their babies and running.”
Gasping between tears, Sharif said that during their two days at the school, they have neither showered nor slept, and have had no access to clean toilets.
“I call on all people of the world to stop this. We want to go back home,” she said. “We don’t want to die.”
Others trying to escape the carnage have gone from house to house, seeking safety in a territory that they cannot escape due to the Israeli and Egyptian siege.
“I have five sisters, three of them children. They were shaking and traumatized, said they were waiting for their turn to also end up under the rubble,” said 27-year-old Tariq al-Hillo.
“We left the house at 2 a.m. We took blankets because it was very cold, and I took my laptop and left the house,” said Hillo. “We walked for around eight or 10 kilometers before we arrived at our relatives house … I was shaking and couldn’t even walk because I was terrified.”
“For more than two days, we have not been able to eat anything. It’s not because we won’t have food but because we live in a time of horror. We can’t eat, or sleep or even breathe.”
Back in the home of the Saad family, Reema’s brother Ahmad has plunged into a deep sense of grief. Just a few hours before they were killed, he said, Reema’s family had called Ahmad on WhatsApp video telling him about the Eid traditions they continued to observe, despite the havoc wreaked by Israeli strikes.
“They went to buy new clothes and toys for her children. And at 10 p.m., four hours before they were killed, they called us via WhatsApp video,” said Ahmad. “The kids were very excited and wanted Eid to come so they could wear their new clothes and play with the new toys.
“Everyone loved Reema. She was very optimistic, although that’s a hard thing to be in Gaza,” he added.
“I will miss her. May her soul rest in peace.”