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“They Didn’t Spare Anyone”: The Story of an Israeli Massacre in Gaza

In December, Israeli ground troops entered a Gaza apartment building filled with innocent people. Survivors told Al Jazeera that the soldiers left a “bloodbath” in their wake.

Yahya Anan walked through the place his family once called home. Dried blood still coated the walls and floors. There were bullet holes everywhere. Casings were scattered around the stairs and floor.

“This was one of the worst days of my life,” Yahya said. Clutching his chest, he bent over and held a hand up to our cameraman, asking for a moment.

That day was December 19, 2023 when Israeli ground troops entered the Anan family’s apartment building in Gaza City. According to survivors, by the end of the day, at least 11 civilians had been killed. 

When he recovered, Yahya said, “I don’t think there is a human being who could forget anything like this.”

Working with journalists in Gaza, Al Jazeera English investigated a number of Israeli military attacks as part of The Night Won’t End, a documentary we reported and produced for the show Fault Lines and which was released last Friday. While we reported on incidents ranging from a massive air strike to attacks on safe zones to the killing of 6-year-old Hind Rajab, we also sought to focus on an issue that has received more limited media coverage: allegations of arbitrary executions of civilians by Israeli ground forces.

This is the story of one of those alleged incidents. We verified the details of the attack using the testimony of six survivors, satellite imagery, phone messages, and video footage.

By December of last year, Israeli ground troops had a solid hold of north Gaza. Attacks and sieges on hospitals like Kamal Adwan and Al Awda were in full force. Air strikes had already decimated significant portions of the north and were continuing in tandem with ground attacks.

Some of the dozens of people sheltering in the Anan apartment building told Fault Lines that in the days leading up to December 19, Israeli ground troops laid siege to the building, shelling it and trapping people inside.

One resident who spoke to our team and wanted to remain anonymous out of fear for her safety said that the ground troops had to know that there were no armed fighters in the building because no one fought back at any point. “If there was anything that frightened or harmed them, or anyone resisting or fighting them, it would have been obvious in those five days,” the survivor said. “They knew this house had civilians inside.”

The Salem family was also sheltering in the building. They had already been displaced twice during the war. Just a week prior, they had survived a massive air strike that killed over 100 members of their extended family.

“We took refuge there to be safe,” Hiba Salem told our team with a heavy sigh. And then she laughed, as though the idea of safety was ridiculous.

“The tanks and bulldozers trapped us at the door of the house,” she said. “For an entire week, shells were landing on our building. We were trapped and they shot at us from the quadcopter 24 hours a day. We were living under very difficult circumstances. We had no water. Life was impossible for us.”

Satellite imagery from Planet Labs from the morning of December 19 shows Israeli tanks about one block from the Anan apartment building. A few hours later, survivors testified that soldiers entered the building.

“They came from that door—they blew up the door and went in—we were shocked,” said Ahmed Anan, Yahya’s father. “We just sat and we thought, what do they want from us? The soldiers were in front of us. They told us to raise our hands up, we raised our hands up. ‘Take off your clothes’—we took off our clothes.” He was downstairs with his daughter and young grandson. Eventually, he said, they forced all of them to leave the building while the rest of the family remained inside.

“I knew my kids and the rest of my family were upstairs,” he said. “What were they going to do to them?”

Yahya was upstairs with most of his family. He said that as soon as soldiers entered their apartment, he and the others shouted that they were civilians, over and over. “They came in firing randomly,” he said, walking through the remnants of the apartment. As he talked, he pointed to some of the bloodstains.

“The first one killed [was] Abu Hamdi Al-Ghalayini, my sister’s husband. This is his abaya and here is blood. They shot a bullet in his head and the other one in his heart.”

Yahya said he heard the soldiers speaking Hebrew as well as English. “But there were no questions. No ‘What’s your name?’ or ‘What’s your ID number?’ Nothing.”

Hiba Salem was sheltering in a different apartment in the building when soldiers came in. She was with her husband Ayman and their eight children, including their oldest son, Oday.

“They went to each apartment,” Oday said, “shooting and firing shells so they could search and see who was inside. Of course, it was all civilians here.”

According to Hiba, the soldiers who came into their apartment asked if there were any fighters. “We told them we have no resistance fighters. We are all civilians. I have children. They took my son, a young man, to the kitchen and hit him in his stomach and head.” Ayman was beaten and thrown down the stairs, according to both Hiba and Oday. “They broke my husband’s jaw. They broke this part of his face,” Hiba said, gesturing to the side of her own face. “He began bleeding. They tortured him by beating his arms with their rifles until they bled.”

After this, survivors said that they were grouped with other residents of the building, and the women and men were separated from each other. “They hit our heads with a big baton, and they fired their weapons right over our heads which made our ears ring and hurt so much,” Hiba recalled. “They took us women, three at a time, to an interior room. They stripped us of our clothes and searched us, while mocking and laughing at us, using dirty words.”

The women had been separated from the men, but both Hiba and another woman who was there said that they could see the men from where they were. “They put us in a room and the men were in front of us,” the other woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said. According to the survivors, the men were stripped to their underwear and then forced to kneel on the ground.

“I was right there,” Yahya said, gesturing to a spot in the apartment corridor. “I don’t know if these marks are from the shots that were aimed at me or not. I was lying face down on the ground.” As he looked around, he gestured to where his uncle and cousin were in front of him and to the spot in front of him where his brother Amin was.

It was after this that survivors said that the soldiers then began shooting at all the men.

“They started to carry out executions in front of our eyes,” Hiba recalled. “They didn’t spare anyone. They created a bloodbath, I swear to God.”

At least 11 men were killed, including Hiba’s husband, Ayman. The rest of the men were from the Anan family and their in-laws from the Ghalayini and Al-Ashi families. Yahya Anan and Oday Salem were also shot, but they survived.

“I was hit here with two bullets,” Yahya said, pointing to his arm. “I lost consciousness. Between one moment and the next, I was near death.”

After this, soldiers left the building but remained outside. The women were still together, including Hiba and her three daughters. Then a few minutes later, survivors said that soldiers began firing on the building from the outside.

Rula Salem, Hiba’s oldest daughter, said that she was huddled in a corner, holding her 4-year-old sister Nada in her lap. “The shelling stopped when the quadcopter began shooting,” Rula, who is 19, said. She continued holding onto Nada through the attack. Her sister was crying and asking for water. “I told her, ‘Wait honey. When it’s finished, I will get you water.’ I didn’t know that at that point her soul was leaving.” It was after the attack stopped that she realized her sister had been killed.

According to Hiba and Rula, Nada was killed by shrapnel during the attack. “Shrapnel came in her eyes while they were open,” Hiba said. “My daughter was killed while she was looking.”

After the soldiers left, the survivors tried to get help. One of Yahya’s sisters who survived the attack messaged a group chat that included relatives, telling them what happened. Fault Lines reviewed text messages she sent at around 10:15 PM local time. In the messages, she says that her family “were all martyred. And we are now trapped in the house with injuries.”

One of the people who received those messages was Shadi Anan, Yahya’s brother who lives in Algeria. He struggled to process the news that so many of his relatives had been killed. “I heard the news, but my brain started working after 15 minutes,” he recalled of hearing what had happened from his sister. “They executed her husband and three kids in front of her.”

After learning what happened, Shadi began trying to find a way to get help for his family. He sent voice notes to others in Gaza, trying to find a way to reach the Palestine Red Crescent Society or anyone in the area that could help, but no one was able to. In one of the voice notes, his voice is audibly distraught as he asks for anyone to go to them. “The area was besieged, and extremely dangerous. But we tried to send an appeal because of the injured, so we could try to save some of them.”

During this time, Yahya finally woke up. “It wasn’t until after I woke up from the sounds of the shelling at the building, that I realized I’m lying down between the martyred,” he said.

Looking around the scene during his interview, he wondered if the blood still visible was from his uncle or his brother or both. After he woke up, Yahya also realized that he had been shot in the arm. “I got up with extreme difficulty and crawled to the women. So they checked me, I am not sure who checked me because it was dark. She wrapped a scarf around my arm, so the bleeding stopped.”

He tried to walk, but it was too difficult to go far in the building. “I slipped three times on the martyrs, from the blood.”

The survivors stayed in the building into the next day, trying to determine if it was safe to leave. “I carried my little sister on my shoulders,” Oday said, recalling when they decided they could evacuate the building. “I helped my other sister to lean on me. And my mom was injured on her face.”

Yahya was still in the building after the others left, unable to leave due to his injury and blood loss. But eventually civilians entered the building, he said. The men who entered the building took a video as they walked through. Fault Lines reviewed the video, which shows the bodies of several undressed men. Nada Salem’s body is also seen briefly. As the men walk through the apartments, navigating through bodies and pools of blood, eventually they come to a room where Yahya can be seen lying on a bed. “They pulled me on the bedsheet and they took me out of the building.”

After this, he was taken to Al-Shifa hospital, where the other survivors had arrived as well. An Al Jazeera news crew was there and filmed the survivors as they recounted what had taken place the day before.

Yahya can be seen lying down as he speaks to the camera. “The first person they struck was my sister’s husband, Abu Hamdi,” he said in the news report.” They shot him as he was saying, ‘Civilians.’”

Hiba was filmed as well. Her face is visibly injured as medical staff treat her and her children. “There’s a bullet in my hand. There’s a bullet in my daughter’s head,” she said in the video. “My son can’t see. My young daughter was killed, and my husband, they executed him.” In a video taken shortly before her husband Ayman was buried, the injuries on his face from the attack are visible.

The Israeli Defense Forces did not respond to a request for comment on the allegations of the attack.

“My husband made me feel safe. I spent my whole life with him, in all its details, all its meaning,” Hiba told our crew in Gaza. Like all the families we spoke with for our documentary, those that survived this attack remain haunted by what they experienced, and what was taken from them: beloved family and friends, homes full of memories, and dreams for their children’s future and what might have been.

“I couldn’t wait for her to grow up,” Hiba said of her daughter Nada. “Her one wish, she’d tell me, was to get her a backpack and take her to school. She would always say that to me. Whenever I think of them, my heart shatters.”

As Yahya walked through the apartment building, the deep and lingering impact of the attack was visible in his eyes. “They have all the weapons and you’re a defenseless civilian. You have nothing and have done nothing. And in a moment most of your family is executed.” His brother Amin was one of the 11 men who were killed. “I want time to go back in time,” he said, looking around the ruins of his family’s former home where so many of his loved ones were killed.

“I didn’t imagine that one day, that in one moment, they would destroy everything.


The Nation, 2024



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