The cousin of a six-year-old Palestinian girl who died in Gaza after her family’s car appeared to come under fire from Israeli tanks has told how he spoke to her as she waited to be rescued and said he was haunted by her last words.
Hind Rajab’s body was recovered on Saturday, alongside those of six of her relatives, and two Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) paramedics, Yusuf Al-Zeino and Ahmed Al-Madhoun, sent to find her in Gaza City.
Her cousin, Mohammed Hamada, said he was devastated by her death, as he accused the Israelis of having killed her.
Trapped in the car, Hind had phoned the Red Crescent and pleaded with them to come to save her, telling them: “I’m so scared, please come.” The aid agency lost contact with the ambulance dispatched to her aid on 29 January and its crew and Hind remained missing until her death was confirmed on Saturday. Her exact cause of death is unclear.
Hind had also spoken on the phone to her cousin, Mohammed Hamada, as she waited to be rescued.
Speaking from Frankfurt, Germany, the 28-year-old said: “Hind said: ‘Please help me. Please come and rescue us. Rescue me.’ She told me that she was injured in the leg.
“I was literally crying because I was unable to do anything, and I think all of my family were in the same situation. But the funny part was how strong she was. My wife told her: ‘Sweetheart, don’t be scared, God loves you and he will take care of you.’ And she just responded with ‘OK’. I think Hind was braver than all of us.”
Hamada said he has been overwhelmed by grief since that day and that he relived the trauma on Saturday after finding out that Hind’s body had been recovered.
“We all thought that when we get a chance to get their bodies and bury them that it’s going to be easier but it wasn’t like this. It was like deja vu so we were again with all the pain and the tears,” he said.
The tragedy comes as Israel prepares a ground offensive in Rafah in southern Gaza, despite warnings from aid agencies that such an assault would be a “catastrophe”.
More than half the strip’s population of 2.3 million are thought to be sheltering in the city, having fled the Israeli military campaign elsewhere in Gaza. Israel had previously designated Rafah a safe zone.
Hamada said the tragedy unfolded on 29 January, when Hind and her uncle, aunt and four cousins attempted to flee Gaza City which had been under bombardment by the Israeli military. But the family appeared to have encountered Israeli tanks in the Tel al-Hawa area with their car coming under fire.
Hamada said he first found out from other relatives at around 13.40 (11.40GMT) that the family had been “shot” by the Israeli military and that he and another cousin contacted the PRCS for help.
He then called the family directly and spoke to Hind’s 15-year-old cousin, Layan Hamadeh, who was also in touch with the PRCS. The aid agency has published a partial recording of her harrowing phone call in which she can be heard screaming.
Hamada said: “Layan told me that her father and my aunt – her mother is my aunt – were shot and they are all dead. She said the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers were shooting them and she also told me that the tanks are getting closer to them.
“She said that she was injured, Hind too, and they need help. And then I asked her about her father and my aunt, if they were OK. She told me that she could not look them in the face. I really don’t know why, if it was because their injuries were so bad or because they were away from the car.”
Layan explained that she had been injured in the leg, as had Hind, but that “she didn’t know how bad the injury or injuries were because she was covered – all of them were covered – in blood,” Hamada added.
He said he spoke to her a few times in between trying to coordinate the rescue with the Red Cross but that the last time he was able to reach her was at 14.40.
The IT worker, who moved from Gaza to Germany 10 years ago, said: “The last call I had with Layan, she was scared and she screamed that they are shooting at her and I believe she died while we were on the call with her.
“I took the timestamps of all the calls that were made and I believe either me or the Red Cross were the last talking to her. I could hear that they were shooting at her and this was the last time. A couple of minutes later I was able to call them again but this time Hind came on the phone and said Layan has passed away.”
Soon after the family lost contact with Hind, who Hamada described as a “funny kid” with dreams of becoming a doctor. He said Layan wanted to be a lawyer and was “very smart, very thoughtful”.
Hamada said the family does not yet know how Hind died but that they hold the IDF responsible.
“They were evacuating safely from one place to another because they could hear shots ... and then they got attacked. The Red Cross coordinated [the rescue] with the IDF – clearly, they did – and then [paramedics] got shot too. So who else is responsible for that?”
The PRCS has accused Israel of deliberately targeting the ambulance, which they said had been bombed. It published footage of what it said were the blackened and destroyed remains of the vehicle. The ambulance was found just metres away from Hind’s family’s car, which was said to be smashed and riddled with bullet holes.
The Guardian has contacted the IDF for comment.