Noor al-Sawarka’s life changed forever on the night the Israeli army targeted her family’s home in the central town of Deir al-Balah.
The 12-year-old lost her parents and three siblings on November 14 after Israeli missiles struck the family dwelling some 15km (nine miles) south of Gaza City. The home – consisting of several shacks covered with corrugated metal sheets – was blown to smithereens.
The Israeli army claimed it targeted the house of a military commander belonging to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad armed group, an allegation immediately rejected by the victims’ family.
Noor said when she first heard the explosions she found herself running outside in an open field.
“I ran as fast as I could to the open land next to us,” she told Al Jazeera. “I didn’t know what happened and all I saw was thick black smoke.”
Her eyes sunk out of focus as she refused to say how she feels, two weeks after the bombing that turned her and two younger siblings into orphans.
Her sister, eight-year-old Reem, and brother, six-year-old Dia, also survived that night. Bruises were still visible on Reem’s lower lip, nose and forehead.
“After I went to sleep that night, I only remember that I woke up in the hospital,” she said.
Since then, Reem has had trouble sleeping at night fearing that bombs will drop on her again. She said she often hears the “zannana” – Arabic for the buzzing sound Israeli drones flying overhead make.
The bombing killed nine members of the al-Sawarka family: Rasmi Abu Malhous al-Sawarka, 46; his second wife Maryam, 45; and three of their 11 children – Mohannad, 12; Salim, three; and three-month-old Firas.
Rasmi’s younger brother, 40-year-old Mohamed, and his wife Yousra, 39, were also killed in the attack, in addition to two of their sons: Thirteen-year-old Waseem and seven-year-old Moaaz.
The al-Sawarka victims were among the 34 Palestinians killed by Israeli air raids over the Gaza Strip over two days, in an escalation of violence between Israel and the Islamic Jihad last month.
False Israeli claims
The two sides began exchanging fire following Israel’s killing of top Islamic Jihad commander Bahaa Abu al-Ata in Gaza. In response, the Islamic Jihad fired rockets into southern Israel, with Israel’s military saying it recorded more than 350 projectiles.
A ceasefire, reportedly brokered by Egypt, was declared the morning after the al-Sawarka family was targeted.
Mohamad Awad, a member of the al-Sawarka Bedouin tribe and a neighbour of the family, told Al Jazeera the Israeli bombing was a “war crime” because Rasmi and his brother Mohamed were civilians and had nothing to do with any armed group.
“They raised sheep and were barely making ends meet before they were killed,” he said.
Awad denied the Israel army’s claim that Rasmi was a member of Islamic Jihad, and said he was an employee of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) government.
Awad called on international human rights organisations to investigate “Israeli crimes” against innocent Palestinians.
“The world cannot remain silent on the Israeli crimes against us,” he said.
Israel’s military said it was investigating the incident and the “harm caused to civilians”.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Israeli army spokesman Avichay Adraee said on Twitter the attack targeted the head of the Islamic Jihad’s rocket unit, whom he identified as Rasmi Abu Malhous.
“Rasmi Abu Malhous, leader of Islamic Jihad and the commander of the rocket unit in the central Gaza brigade, was the target of last night in the raid on Deir al-Balah,” Adraee said.
Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted an Israeli army official as saying Adraee’s claim appeared to have been based on false rumours spread online.
Awad said he is now helping Israeli rights organisation B’Tselem gather evidence and document witness testimony to investigate the bombing.
A B’Tselem official told Al Jazeera the incident was under investigation.
Awad said it was a “miracle” that many of the children survived. “God was looking down on these children and saved them,” he said.
After the bombing, he went to look for his cousin and the children and in the thick smoke, he heard a muffled sound of a baby crying from under the twisted metal rooves.
He said he lifted the debris and found month-and-half-old Farah, Rasmi’s baby daughter, lying on the sand, covered by a metal sheet.
“Farah was crying when I picked her up in my arm and she was unharmed,” he said. “God saved that baby girl.”
All of the surviving al-Sawarka children are now living with relatives and survive on aid from humanitarian organisations.
The Gaza Strip has been under a joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade for more than a decade, which has severely curtailed freedom of movement for its two million people.