Gaza City — Mahmoud al-Sheikh Khalil, one of the few survivors from the assault on Shujayea, stands nervously at the gates of al-Shifa hospital waiting for the next ambulance to arrive. His frightened eyes spot an ambulance making its way through the crowd with difficulty.
The ambulance doors open and the dead are lifted off. He bursts into tears as he recognizes a familiar small face and shouts out, "Samia al-Sheikh Khalil!" Three-year-old Samia's body has been torn to shreds by an Israeli tank shell. Yet she is still recognizable despite the burns.
Khalil, 36, learns that other remains, wrapped in white burial shrouds, are his cousins'. He collapses and says, "We were trying to run, but the tank shells were chasing us wherever we went."
"Around 6 a.m., I was inside my house. I heard the neighbors screaming for help after a blast. I managed to get outside to try to rescue them, but it was a massacre — women and children all torn into small pieces."
Shujayea, in the east of Gaza City, has been under horrendous attack since Israel began its assault on Gaza 14 days ago. Sunday's carnage left 72 people dead, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Nearly all the dead were women, children and elderly men.
According to Ashraf al-Qedra, a representative for the Health Ministry, Gaza's latest death toll climbed to 512 Palestinians killed and more than 3,160 injured since the start of Israel's assault on July 8.
Those like Khalil who survived said it was a miracle.
According to several eyewitness accounts, some Shujayea residents were holding whatever white cloth they could find — shirts, undershirts or tablecloths — to wave as white flags. They wanted to get out of the targeted area under constant heavy Israeli bombardment. But most white cloths were either ripped apart or covered in blood.
Iman Mansour, another survivor and mother of three, managed to escape with her children.
"Nowhere was safe to run to," she says. Her three children, all injured, are receiving medical treatment at Al-Shifa Hospital. "We were forced to leave our house because tank shells were falling like hot raindrops."
Her mother-in-law, Umm Wael Mansour, who is also being treated at Al-Shifa, had her house destroyed by a tank shell. "I lived through the 1967 war and all the following Israeli wars, but this war is indescribable," she says. "It's crueler than the massacres of Sabra and Shatila."
When her house was hit, she screamed out. As neighbors tried to help, they were killed outside her doorstep. "The bodies of men, women and children were scattered all over, and no one could come to help save them," she says as tears fall.
The smell at Al-Shifa is of burned human flesh. The morgue is filled with all types of injuries — human body parts and limbs and burned bodies, including bad facial burns on dead children.
The morgue has more bodies than it can hold. Many of the victims are unrecognizable. Those searching for their loved ones struggle to remember any specific physical detail — skin color, old scars, facial shape, haircut or height and weight, scraps of clothing — to be able to identify an otherwise badly damaged body.
During a two-hour cease-fire, ambulance crews struggle to collect dead bodies. When they arrive, some people are still alive, and some are taking their last breaths.
A paramedic sees a stretcher on the floor and underneath it the body of his colleague Fouda Jaber, killed by an Israeli tank shelling. "Oh my God, Fouad … Fouad is one of them. He has been killed," screams the medical worker before carrying out the body of his friend.
Jaber was on a rescue mission trying to save a family of 10, most of them women and children. He died inside the house while tank shells destroyed the ambulance.
"Instead of targeting medical facilities, in violation of international law, Israeli forces must protect medics and patients and ensure that the injured can safely reach medical facilities in Gaza and when necessary, outside the Strip," says Philip Luther of Amnesty International.
At the hospital, more survivors await the ambulances, searching desperately for their family members.
Khalil stays until the end of the day looking in vain for more relatives. Paramedics confirm that seven of his cousins are dead.
All he hopes for now is another cease-fire so he can get back home to search for the missing family members.