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22 Members Of One Family Killed In Gaza

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We've heard the numbers this past week - 12 killed in Israel, more than 240 killed in Gaza. A death is agonizing for either side. The kind of losses families in Gaza endured these past two weeks are devastating. Gaza officials say 19 families lost multiple relatives. In two of those cases, entire nuclear families were wiped out. NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Gaza and met one extended family who lost more than any other, and they are left with questions.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Many people from around Gaza are coming to al-Wahda (ph) street to see the little that remains of the Qalaq (ph) family's homes.

Laundry machine, mattresses, that's a purse - a black and white striped purse.

The extended Qalaq family - uncles, aunts, brothers, children - all lived together here in two apartment buildings. It was about 1 a.m. on Sunday. Twenty-two-year-old Zainab (ph) was huddled inside with 16 members of her extended family.

ZAINAB QALAQ: In one room, we all together just hearing bombs everywhere, but we don't know that it will come to our home. And it's disaster.

ESTRIN: She saw the floor split open. She felt like she sank. The upper stories came crashing down on top of her.

Z QALAQ: I remember that my mom in my right hand and my sister in my left hand, but both of them passed away. And I hear them that - when they are dying. I can't do anything.

ESTRIN: She was buried under rubble and could not move. Her cell phone was in her hand. She called her friend at 1:02 a.m. - call an ambulance. Two hours later, her phone battery died, and she was alone. She prayed to stay alive. It was 12 hours before she was pulled out of the rubble.

Z QALAQ: My mom, Aman (ph) - she's - she says her name hope, hope for everyone she knows. She's the most kind person you will meet ever. My sister - my only sister, Hanna (ph) - she's the source of happiness for everyone. She's still young. She's a student at school. She has friends. She has hopes. She has dreams. I know all of her dreams, but all of them just go.

ESTRIN: Her 16-year-old sister learned Korean online. She was dreaming to travel to Korea. Now she's dead. Her big brother, Taher (ph), 24, a civil engineering graduate, her little brother, Ahmad (ph), 17 - both dead. Only her father and brother survived.

Z QALAQ: We are civilians. So we don't have - just why? Why they are just bombing us? What they want?

ESTRIN: The buzzing sound you hear in the background are Israeli drones somewhere in the sky. The building next door also collapsed. Another branch of the family, her cousins, were killed, accountant Mohammed (ph) and three of his four children, Mohammed's brother, Izat (ph), a lawyer, his wife and two of their three children. All together, about 22 members of the extended family are gone. No other family in Gaza lost as many relatives in this war.

AZAM QALAQ: (Speaking non-English language).

ESTRIN: A surviving brother struggles to comprehend - Azam (ph), a mechanical electrician. Israel did not call them to warn them of the strike like the military did with many other civilians, allowing them to escape before their homes were bombed. Israel says it was targeting an underground Hamas facility, and the foundations of the homes above it collapsed.

A QALAQ: (Through interpreter) If I'm living above the tunnel, how did we know? We didn't even know about it. And if it's there, they should start it by before just striking it - just warning me here before.

ESTRIN: This family says it never suffered any other losses in previous wars. They say they're unaffiliated with any militant group. In fact, they say they do a lot of import and export with business ties in Israel. Azam says he is for peace. Now he wants Israel to provide evidence there were tunnels under his home. His other brother, Maher (ph).

MAHER QALAQ: (Through interpreter) Once the Israelis give us evidence for their accusations that there was a tunnel under my house - OK? - I'll start after that - OK? - filing a suit for Hamas and asking them - OK? - why they did that to me.

ESTRIN: Azam says he doesn't want to seek revenge. He'd want to file a lawsuit with Israel. But in Israel, he says, quote, "The judge and the executioner are one in the same."

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin, who is on the line with us from Gaza City. Daniel, good morning.

ESTRIN: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Has Israel given any explanation why families like this were not warned before the strikes?

ESTRIN: I'm seeking answers on that, particularly on this strike, with the army. A military official says that they had been bombing Hamas tunnels underground and that Israel does not know exactly the route of all these tunnels. And if a tunnel is close to the surface, that the blast can cause a house to collapse. I cannot, of course, independently verify that there were tunnels there. I didn't see anything like that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, Daniel, as you are in Gaza and you're talking to people and you're walking around, I'm wondering what you think rebuilding will look like in an enclave where even without open conflict, life is so hard.

ESTRIN: Yeah, I mean, we've seen this in past wars, Lulu. There are homes that need rebuilding - a lot of homes. Roads are bombed. Water sanitation pipes are damaged. And Israel is very strict about what materials go into Gaza to make sure that building materials do not go to Hamas military rebuilding. Right now, shops are open again. You know, Gazans don't have a choice but to go on with their lives. But there are no answers to the real questions here. Will Hamas continue to rule Gaza? Will Israel keep leading a blockade on Gaza? The Palestinians I've met the last few days in Gaza are just focused on bouncing back. And they're really traumatized.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Gaza City. Thank you very much.

ESTRIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.