Gaza City, Gaza – Shortly after midnight on May 19, a reconnaissance missile pierced the roof of the Muhareb family’s home in Rafah, in the southern part of the besieged Gaza Strip.
Two minutes later, an Israeli warplane dropped another missile, which crashed into two floors of the house, but did not somehow explode.
“My brother and his family, who live on the second floor, were all injured by the reconnaissance missile,” Waseem Muhareb told Al Jazeera. “My four month old baby was in a coma for two days and my eight year old niece Layan was in intensive care for 10 days with burns all over her body. “
Muhareb’s extended family home, inhabited by 36 adults and children, was ruined. The second missile crashed into one of the children’s rooms before landing on the first floor.
“There was no warning,” said Waseem, whose family now live in rented accommodation nearby. “The whole event took place in three minutes. “
Risks and dangers
The next day, the demining team arrived and removed the unexploded ordnance as well as the remnants of the reconnaissance projectile.
The squad, which reports to the Interior Ministry, has carried out 1,200 missions to neutralize, defuse and destroy unexploded warheads and dangerous munitions in residential areas of Gaza since May 10, when Israel began a 11-day bombardment of the coastal enclave.
The escalation in violence follows a crackdown by Israeli forces against protesters inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem. Hamas, the Palestinian group that runs Gaza, has issued an ultimatum for Israeli forces to withdraw from the area around the holy site, which is also sacred to Jews, who call it the Temple Mount.
After the ultimatum expired, Hamas fired several rockets at Jerusalem and soon after, Israel launched airstrikes on Gaza. The Israeli shelling continued for 11 days and killed at least 260 Palestinians, including 66 children, according to health officials. Rockets fired by armed groups in Gaza have killed at least 13 people in Israel. Hamas and Israel agreed to a ceasefire on May 21.
The bombing of Gaza caused extensive damage infrastructure, including the destruction of 1,800 homes, 74 public buildings, 53 educational institutions and 33 media offices. Damage to a water desalination plant also left more than 250,000 Palestinians without drinking water.
Captain Mohammed Meqdad, an explosives engineer at Gaza’s interior ministry, told Al Jazeera that the bomb disposal team, made up of 70 people, has not suffered any casualties during their work since 10 May, despite the lack of essential protective equipment.
“The team does not have protective vests or high-tech equipment that can reveal the presence of explosives,” Meqdad said. “They only have basic equipment, like a toolbox that can be found in almost any home.”
The engineer said that under a 13-year Israeli blockade crippling Gaza, the entry of protective equipment used by demining teams into Gaza has been banned.
Meqdad said the main risk associated with working during the Israeli offensive was the possibility that the team could be targeted.
“The second risk is the type of ammunition Israel has dropped, how dangerous it is and whether the affected technician could assess all of this with the rudimentary equipment at his disposal,” Meqdad said.
The final step in the process of collecting and disposing of unexploded ordnance is to transfer it to the central warehouse, located in Rafah, for destruction.
Meqdad said the recent offensive saw a new type of weapon first used in the Gaza Strip – the GBU-31 explosives and GBU-39 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). Developed to penetrate heavily fortified military sites, the two-ton explosives were used to raze high-rise buildings that housed residential apartments, as well as commercial and media offices.
Training and field experience
The Bomb Disposal Team was established in 1996 when the Palestinian Authority ruled Gaza. The first team received a course by experts from the United States, and in 2006 the team was strengthened by the addition of more engineers and technicians.
Following the deadly Israeli attack of 2008-2009 offensive in Gaza, the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) began operations in addition to training the Interior Ministry bomb disposal team.
Between 2014 and 2020, UNMAS responded to 876 explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) requests, directly removed and destroyed 150 large aerial bombs containing 29,500 kilograms of explosive material, and supported the clearance of 7,340 explosive remains from war (REG).
Meqdad said new recruits to the bomb disposal team received their training from current employees, based on their own years of field experience.
“In the past 10-11 years, no one working in this field has left Gaza to receive training outside,” he said.
“Every day can be the last”
Asad al-Aloul, who has led the mine clearance team for eight years, said their job was the most dangerous in the security division, which includes police and internal security agencies.
“Choosing to work in this area is our choice and a mark of honor as we remove any harm and danger that threatens our citizens,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Just because you work in explosives engineering means you are a martyr,” he added. “Each day that you leave your job can mean your last day on earth, for any mistake means it will be the last mistake you make – bar none. “
In 2014, three technicians from the demining brigade were killed, in addition to a foreign journalist and a Palestinian translator present at the scene, after an attempt to defuse a missile in northern Gaza.
Despite the risks of the work, al-Aloul said he had not considered stopping the work.
“Who else will take over and protect our children from injury or death, knowing all these risks?” ” he said. “We are working to provide a better future for the next generation so that they do not have to live with amputations caused by a missile or bomb explosion.
“Every day you see death, but the savior is God. It is an honor to die defending our people.