It was graduation day at Gaza City’s main police station, and a host of VIPs had turned out Saturday to honor the latest class of Palestinian cadets amid the usual pomp and circumstance.
“We were feeling safe and calm,” said officer Hussein Ahmad, 24.
What happened next has been broadcast repeatedly in all of its chaotic intensity across the Arab world and around the globe. Just after 11 a.m., Israeli aircraft launched dozens of closely timed missile strikes on police stations, government buildings and other sites associated with Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement.
Video from the graduation ceremony showed the bloodied bodies of dozens of dead and wounded young Palestinian men in black uniforms, as survivors rushed to assist the injured.
The multiple strikes roiled the tiny, tightly packed coastal enclave and immediately overwhelmed Gaza’s threadbare hospitals. Egypt, which has kept its border crossing at Rafah generally sealed for more than a year, said it would accept casualties.
At Gaza City’s main Shifa Hospital, bodies were arranged in the parking lot. One woman wandered, screaming, “My son, my son!” Eventually she found the boy’s body and fetched a cloth to cover his near-naked corpse.
“It was horrible, really horrible,” hospital director Hassan Khalaf told Al Jazeera International news channel. “It’s really a desperate situation.”
Gaza’s hospitals were already critically low on most supplies because of a long-term blockade by Israel, assisted by Egypt, designed to pressure the militant Hamas organization that seized control of the strip last year. After Saturday’s Israeli air attacks, 215 victims arrived at Shifa Hospital within 15 minutes, Khalaf said.
Yehya Ayman, 12, ran around in shock and resisted his father’s attempts to pull him away from the bodies of his uncle and brother.
“I want to see them. I am not afraid,” Yehya said.
The boy then turned to a militant fighter and pleaded, “You have to shell [the Israelis] and take revenge for us.”
Radio broadcasts called every doctor and medical professional to their posts and appealed to residents for blood donations.
Staff members at Shifa Hospital transformed the orthopedic wing into an extra ICU and emptied the maternity ward to use the delivery rooms for emergency surgeries.
Among the targets were at least 30 police stations throughout Gaza, which Israel says are part of Hamas’ “terror infrastructure.” An estimated two-thirds of the casualties were police officers or members of the various Hamas security forces, a senior Gazan medical official said.
Militants with Hamas and several smaller armed factions long have launched rockets and mortar shells at southern Israeli towns from positions in the Gaza Strip. A shaky six-month truce between Israel and Hamas ended Dec. 19, and more than 50 rockets and mortar shells from Gaza militants came down in the Israeli south on Wednesday, causing no serious casualties but sowing widespread panic.
The rise in hostilities and several days of dire warnings by Israeli officials had many Gazans bracing for some sort of reprisal. But Saturday’s attacks still seemed to catch Hamas off guard.
Among the dead from the graduation ceremony were two of Gaza’s highest-ranking security officials: Tawfiq Jabber, police chief for all of Gaza; and Ismail Jabari, head of a security force similar to the Secret Service.
Hamas’ civilian and military leaders generally go underground when Israeli airstrikes are considered imminent. But the presence of two such high-ranking officials at an outdoor ceremony appeared to indicate that Hamas did not think Israel was about to strike.
Israel Radio commentator Gal Berger suggested that Hamas had fallen victim to its own vanity, confident that Israel was bluffing and that the Jewish state wouldn’t attack in the midst of the approach to national elections.
Multiple Hamas officials refused to comment on whether they had been caught by surprise.
Many of the civilian casualties were people living near or simply walking past police stations or other security targets when the missiles struck.
Ahmad Sinwar, 4, was playing in the courtyard of his southern Gaza City home when the adjacent civil defense headquarters was bombed. He was killed by a flying chunk of concrete that also injured two of his siblings.
“I never expected that the civil defense headquarters would be considered a military target,” said Ahmad’s weeping father, Reyad Sinwar. “What was the sin of my 4-year-old son?”
As midnight approached, individual Israeli airstrikes thumped through the darkened and empty streets. One resident called it “a city of ghosts.”
Funeral mourning tents sprang up outside dozens of homes, with loudspeakers blaring Koranic recitations and pro-Hamas anthems.
Abu Alouf is a special correspondent. Special correspondents Fayed Abu Shammala in Cairo and Hamada Abu Qamar in Gaza City contributed to this report.