It was the most difficult night in Muhammad Jaber’s life. The walls were shaking, there was a toxic odor in the air, and the 22-year-old business student congregated with his family at their home in northern Gaza as Israeli aircraft launched airstrikes across the Strip. At around 1am, he picked up his phone and began recording artillery strikes nearby.
“I forgot all my dreams and my goals,” Jaber said, recalling the early hours of May 16 – the bloodiest day in the conflict. “You just need me and my family to survive.”
As violence raged between Israel and Hamas, the nights punctuated by sirens, explosions, and booms. Friday’s ceasefire marked a temporary end to the bombing, but for more than a week, civilians had been gathering in their homes, waking up; In Gaza, parents put cotton balls in their children’s ears to silence the bombing.
South of Jaber’s house, planes flew over Gaza City. Muhammad Abu Oun was at home with his father, mother, and older sister when the missiles struck a nearby apartment building. He shook from the blast, and shouted, “Oh, oh God.”
“The sound was incredibly loud and frightening,” said the 22-year-old photojournalist. “There was thick smoke from the bombs and they were on fire.” He ran to the site and found it “completely destroyed, dead bodies everywhere. I didn’t know what to do.”
Israeli strikes killed more than 40 people in Gaza on May 16, including 10 children. More than 200 Palestinians have been killed during the past eleven days.
North of Gaza, sirens filled the night in Tel Aviv as rockets were fired over the city.
“We didn’t sleep,” said Janie Kripostny. “It felt like my whole body was shaking.”
Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, has fired more than 4,000 rockets into Israel since the fighting began. The group fired more on Saturday night alone than during the 50-day war between Israel and Gaza in 2014, according to General Uri Gordin, who commands the Israeli Home Front Command.
Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system has intercepted about 90% of those attacks, according to the army, but 12 people in Israel have been killed since the violence began. Hamas fired a barrage of rockets at levels never before seen in the country’s most vibrant and densely populated city.
[Tel Aviv was long known as ‘the Bubble’ for its distance from war. This time is different.]
“I never believed this could happen in Tel Aviv,” said Kripostny, 25, who works for a startup there.
She added, “the warning sirens.” “That was the scariest part. When you need to run somewhere. Then you hear the bombs and hear them go off nearby.”
Krepostni did not have a bomb shelter in her building, so she went to live with her parents in Karmiel, northern Israel.
In Gaza, residents said they had no place to hide, no shelters, and no escape.
As the sun rose over Gaza City on Sunday, rescuers had spent hours digging through the rubble left behind by Al-Wahda Street. There were moments of hope as they pulled out the people who had survived from under demolished homes.
Riad Eshkontana was buried under the destruction for five hours before being rescued.
There were also moments of pain. Ishkuntana was later handed over the body of his dead child.
He lost four children and his wife, According to the Associated Press. Only he and his daughter Suzie survived.
The strikes, which the IDF said targeted the Hamas network of underground tunnels, destroyed al-Wehda Street, an area full of cafes, shops and bakeries.
[The roar of an Israeli airstrike, buildings collapsed and a family buried under rubble]
Israel said its goal is to eliminate Hamas’s capabilities and avoid civilian casualties. But for those inside Gaza, the bombing was indiscriminate.
“We don’t understand what they are aiming for,” said Nour al-Shaer, 21, who lives in Rafah, which borders the Strip with Egypt. That night, when she heard an ongoing artillery shelling, she called her friend, whose uncle and cousin were seriously injured in the violence. The medical student and her family talk to each other as if each conversation might be the last.
“We always ask everyone for forgiveness, because we are ready to die.”
Hazem Balousha from Gaza City and Shera Rubin from Tel Aviv contributed to this report.