‘Bodies everywhere’: the horrors of Israel’s strike on a Rafah camp

<span>It took nearly half an hour for the first ambulances and firefighters to reach the stretch of blazing tents in Kuwait peace camp in Rafah on 26 May.</span><span>Photograph: Eyad Baba/AFP/Getty</span>
It took nearly half an hour for the first ambulances and firefighters to reach the stretch of blazing tents in Kuwait peace camp in Rafah on 26 May.Photograph: Eyad Baba/AFP/Getty

It took nearly half an hour for the first ambulances and firefighters to reach the stretch of blazing tents in the Kuwait peace camp in Rafah on Sunday night. The crowding and rubble that slowed the passage of emergency vehicles fuelled the spread of flames through the temporary homes of the displaced.

Zuhair, a 36-year-old lawyer, had been sitting on a road near his own tent, watching the news with friends as the last glimmers of twilight faded from the sky, when an explosion shook the area at about 8.45pm.

He raced towards the sound, terrified for his wife, children and friends. A vision of hell lay ahead, so gruesome he started shaking from shock. “I saw bodies everywhere. Children burning. I saw heads without bodies, the injured running around in pain, some alive but trapped inside burning tents.”

There had been no warning, and for many long minutes, there was no help.

He said people tried at first to drag the injured from tents with their bare hands, loading them on to donkey carts or cramming them into ordinary cars to seek help.

Sharif Warsh Agha, a driver, was among the crowds trying to help. He too shook as he stepped around bodies burned and mutilated by the initial explosion, and the fires that followed, trying to help the people he could.

“I heard a woman screaming for help for her sister. When I went into the tent, I found her seriously injured in the foot and her mother lying dead next to her,” he said. He did basic first aid, got her to the car, then someone called to say his young nephew – who has special needs – had lost his feet.

“I turned the car around to get my injured nephew but when we started moving someone was brought to me with an open chest wound. We put him in too,” he said.

Eventually nine people were loaded into the small car, which would normally take two people to hospital, with some in the boot.

He had been with his family in their tent, resting after the Maghrib twilight prayer, when a red flash and an explosion ripped the night apart. Black smoke and a deadly hail of shrapnel followed, then the sound of screaming.

He raced out to help the injured, not realising that his sister-in-law had been killed and nephew injured in their tent, which was just 70 metres from where the missiles hit. A sliver of shrapnel pierced her lungs and heart, killing her instantly. “She never did anyone harm,” he said.

Busy with his nephew, he didn’t count the dead, but believes he saw nearly 20 bodies, many of them women and children. “The Israeli army claims they were targeting militants, but it is not an excuse to strike an area full of tents and the displaced.”


The target was at the edge of rows of tents, set up by Kuwait earlier this year to shelter displaced people. The camp was outside a “humanitarian zone” along the coast that Israel had announced in early May, as it launched the operation into Rafah.

But it was not in an area of Rafah covered by specific evacuation orders that the Israeli military issued through social media, phone calls and leaflets as troops moved in, so the people living there thought it was safe.

Agha said: “The missile hit near a medical point surrounded by a lot of tents, in an area with more than 4,000 people.” It seemed unusual because there were no large impact craters on the ground and it sparked the large fire, he added.

The attacks were likely caused by US-manufactured GBU-39 missiles, which carry an explosive payload of 17kg, CNN and the New York Times found in investigations that looked at missile remnants photographed on site. This matched Israeli military claims about the amount of explosives that had been used. Overall the GBU bombs weigh 110kg, including the metal casing that can turn in part to shrapnel. They can penetrate 3 metres of concrete.

The Israeli military spokesperson, Rear Adm Daniel Hagari, said the strike narrowly targeted senior Hamas commanders and said the fire might have been caused by a secondary explosion. He suggested there may have been Hamas weapons stored in the area and said the military is investigating without providing further evidence.

Refugee camps are full of flammable objects that could explode and cause a fire, including cooking gas cylinders.

A large number of Sunday’s victims were originally from Beit Lahia, because many communities stayed together as they fled across Gaza. They included Zuhair’s close friend Ahmed Zayed, who left behind one cherished young child, born after a 10-year struggle with infertility.

He wants his cheerful, ambitious friend to be remembered. “I love mentioning his name so we can assure the world that our dead were not just numbers. They had lives and goals.”

Intense bombardment continued through the night, even after the flames died down, and so the next morning they packed and left again. “I remembered the first exodus from my city [in the north],” he said.

A million people have already left Rafah, and many more are likely to take to the road again in coming weeks as Israeli troops press forward.

Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, said on Wednesday that fighting would last at least through the rest of 2024, signalling the country would defy fierce international criticism to continue with its operation.

“The fighting in Rafah is not a pointless war,” he said, adding that it aimed to dismantle Hamas to prevent future attacks on Israel.

Palestinians who survived attacks on Rafah this weekend, after months of flight and hunger, disagree. “They robbed us of everything. What do they want from us any more?” said Fida Al-Din Abu Jarad, a 40-year-old barber who was sheltering with his wife and children just a few hundred metres from the site of Sunday’s blaze.

On Monday evening they had been kept awake by hunger, so he heard the explosion of a missile landing nearby around 3am, and then watched shrapnel from the blast tear his family apart. In a few seconds, he saw his 18-year-old daughter, Nouira, collapse dead into her mother’s lap and heard his son scream with pain after shrapnel severed his foot.

“I felt that time had stopped,” he said, but the family’s ledger of pain was not complete. The bomb had landed even closer to the nearby tent housing his father and siblings and their families.

“Fear, pain and loss – these words can’t describe my feelings,” he said. “I tried to control my nerves and control my feelings, and I came out to see what happened.”

At his father’s tent, he saw one brother, Abu Ismail, collapsed on the floor beside his wife, who cried out “your brother is dead” as Abu Jarad arrived. Another brother, Emad, had been killed with his wife, Anwar. Their bodies were so badly damaged by the blast that he couldn’t tell one from the other.

One Tuesday he moved what is left of the family to Khan Younis, but is still in shock. Abu Jarad said: “So far I have not been able to comprehend what happened to me. When I took down the tent, I thought of the start of the operation in Rafah. At the time I suggested to my brothers that we move, but they rejected the idea and asked me what I was afraid of.

“I told them I am not afraid for myself, but I am afraid of losing someone from my family. And now it has happened, I have lost them.”