Gaza City, Gaza – On May 19, shortly after midnight, a reconnaissance missile shattered the roof of the Muhareb family home in Rafah, south of the besieged Gaza Strip.
Two minutes later, an Israeli warplane fired another missile that crashed into two floors of the house, but somehow did not explode.
“My brother and his family, who live on the second floor, were wounded with 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 the intensive care unit with burns all over her body for 10 days.”
The home of the Muhareb family, inhabited by 36 adults and children, was ruined. The second missile had crashed through one of the children’s bedrooms before landing on the first floor.
“There was no warning,” said Waseem, whose family now lives in nearby rental accommodation. “The whole ordeal took place within three minutes.”
Risks and dangers
The next day, the bomb disposal squad arrived and removed the unexploded artillery and the remnants of the reconnaissance projectile.
The squadron, which operates under the Interior Ministry, has carried out 1,200 missions to neutralize, deactivate and destroy dangerous unexploded ordnance and ammunition in residential areas of Gaza since May 10, when Israel launched a bombing raid. of the coastal enclave for 11 days.
The escalation of violence followed a crackdown by Israeli forces on protesters at the Al-Aqsa Mosque site in occupied East Jerusalem. Hamas, the Palestinian group that rules Gaza, issued an ultimatum for Israeli forces to withdraw from the area around the sacred site, which is also sacred to Jews, who call it the Temple Mount.
After the expiration of the ultimatum, Hamas fired several rockets at Jerusalem and soon after Israel launched airstrikes against Gaza. The Israeli bombing continued for 11 days and killed at least 260 Palestinians, including 66 children, according to health authorities. Rockets fired by armed groups in Gaza killed at least 13 people in Israel. Hamas and Israel agreed to a ceasefire on May 21.
The bombing of Gaza provoked widespread damage to infrastructure, including the destruction of 1,800 homes, 74 public buildings, 53 educational facilities and 33 media offices. Damage to a water desalination plant has also left more than 250,000 Palestinians without clean drinking water.
Captain Mohammed Meqdad, an explosives engineer with the Gaza Interior Ministry, told Al Jazeera that the squadron of 70 bombs has not suffered any casualties during its work since May 10, despite the lack of vital protection equipment.
“The team has no protective vests or high-tech equipment that could reveal the presence of explosives,” Meqdad said. “They just have simple equipment, like a toolbox that can be found in almost every home.”
The engineer said that, under a crippling 13-year Israeli blockade of Gaza, the entry of protective equipment used by bomb disposal teams into Gaza has been banned.
Meqdad said the main risk associated with the job during the Israeli offensive was the possibility that the team could be attacked.
“The second risk is the type of ammunition that Israel dropped, how dangerous they are and whether the assigned technician could measure all this with the rudimentary equipment at his disposal,” Meqdad said.
The last step in the process of collecting and neutralizing unexploded ordnance is to transfer them to the central warehouse, located in Rafah, in preparation for destruction.
Meqdad said the recent offensive witnessed a new type of weapon used for the first time in the Gaza Strip: the explosives GBU-31 and GBU-39 Joint Direct Attack Ammunition (JDAM). Developed to penetrate heavily fortified military sites, two-ton explosives were used to level high-rise buildings that housed residential apartments, as well as commercial and communications offices.
Training and field experience
The bomb disposal squadron was set up in 1996 when the Palestinian Authority ruled Gaza. The first team received a course from experts from the United States, and in 2006 the team was strengthened with the addition of more engineers and technicians.
After the Israeli death of 2008-2009 offensive in Gaza, the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) began operations in addition to forming the Interior Ministry’s bomb disposal group.
Between 2014 and 2020, UNMAS responded to 876 requests for explosive disposal (EOD), directly removed and destroyed 150 large aerial bombs containing 29,500 kilograms of explosive materials, and supported the disposal of 7,340 articles of explosive remnants of war (ERW).
Meqdad said the new recruits from the bomb disposal squad receive training from current employees, based on their own years of experience working in the field.
“For the last 10-11 years, no one working in this field has left Gaza to receive training abroad,” he said.
“Every day can be the last”
Asad al-Aloul, who has been the head of the bomb disposal staff for the past eight years, said his job is the most dangerous in the security division, which includes police and internal security agencies.
“Choosing to work in this field is our choice and a mark of honor, as we eliminate the harms and dangers that threaten our citizens,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Just working in explosives engineering means you’re a martyr,” he added. “Every day you go to work can mean your last day on earth, because any mistake means it will be the last mistake you make, without exception.”
In 2014, three technicians from the bomb removal squad they were killed, as well as a foreign journalist and a Palestinian translator present at the scene, after an attempt to deactivate a missile in northern Gaza.
Despite the risks of the job, al-Aloul said he has not considered quitting work.
“Who else will take on and protect our children from injury or death, knowing all these risks?” He said. “We work to provide a better future for the next generation so they don’t have to live with amputations caused by a missile or a bomb exploding.”
“Every day you see death, but the Savior is God. It is an honor to die defending our people. “