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Israeli air strikes won't make us lose hope, Gaza student says after passing exams days after family's death

The Islamic University of Gaza (IUG) holds a special graduation ceremony in Zainab Al-Kulak’s home after she lost most of her family members in an Israeli air strike in May 2021 [Public Relations Team /IUG]. 
The Islamic University of Gaza (IUG) holds a special graduation ceremony in Zainab Al-Kulak’s home after she lost most of her family members in an Israeli air strike in May 2021 [Public Relations Team /IUG]. 

On Sunday 16 May, in the pitch dark of the night between midnight and dawn 51-year-old Shukri Al-Kulak and his 22-year-old daughter lay under the rubble of their home.

Shukri tried to make his way to his 83-year-old mother to help resuscitate her, while his daughter Zainab was trapped in a gap between the rubble and was frantically trying to use her phone to get help. Their house had just been targeted by Israeli warplanes.

The strike came after mass protests across the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and by the Palestinian citizens of Israel as a result of the occupation state's plans to evict the Palestinian residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood to make way for settlers. Palestinians in all the occupied territories united against the decision, and Israel struck Gaza.

Israel's heavy bombing on the beleaguered coastal enclave claimed the lives of 260 Palestinians, including at least 129 civilians, of whom 66 were children, according to a report by the United Nations.

The Al-Kulak family moved into the Remal neighbourhood of modern-day Gaza Strip years before Israel was created. Located three kilometres from the city centre, this residential area is one of the enclave's few upscale neighbourhoods and a shopping destination for Gazans.

"The Israeli warplanes devastated two adjacent homes entirely on the heads of their inhabitants without prior notice, although there is no military target nearby," Shukri tells MEMO, denying the occupation army's claims it provides Palestinians with a few minutes' notice to vacate properties using the practice of "roof knocking"; dropping non-explosive or low-yield devices on the roofs of targeted civilian homes moments before an imminent strike.

Later, rescue teams estimated that some 30 members of the family had been killed. Only six had survived. They had spent 13 hours under the ruins of the demolished multi-storey building. The deceased included six women, eight children and an infant.

"We suffer trauma. Our bodies shiver in fear when we hear any loud voice nearby, and we picture our relatives' images around," Shukri explains.

With no signs of an international war crimes inquiry, the number of civilian causalities as a result of this war bears witness to Israel's impunity. "We filed a lawsuit against the Israeli occupation, and we demand accountability for Israeli perpetrators of the massacre," Shukri adds.

Just days after the fatal strike, Zainab sat her Finals Exams at the English Department of the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG). "I promised my family I'd go ahead and obtain my degree," she says.

Despite passing, Zainab felt unable to celebrate her success and attend her graduation ceremony, so the university's Faculty of Humanities held a special service in the family's rented home, in honour of her resilience.

Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Dr Usama Hammad, says it was "part of the humanitarian duty of the university towards the Al-Kulak family" to plan a unique celebration in their home. "It was intended to celebrate the young girl's remarkable resilience and outstanding accomplishment achieved on the heels of a terrible tragedy."

Having recently volunteered with a Gaza-based human rights organisation, Zainab is committed to speaking out for Palestinian victims of Israeli attacks.

"It is impossible for anyone to move on after having lost loved ones… most of my relatives are in Paradise now but losing life does not mean losing hope."

Professor Akram Sobhi Habeeb from Gaza contributed to this article. 

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