An Israeli missile struck the gate of the white concrete house in Gaza, reducing it to rubble within an eye blink. Deafening silence. Stillness. And then the muffled screams began to emerge from beneath the wreckage.
Everything turned grey, except for the red blood dripping on to the faces and hands of the survivors crawling out from beneath, overwhelmed by shock and fear.
"Oh God," cried out one survivor.
Over a month, daily life in the densely populated Palestinian enclave has been marked by air strikes and death. What was once referred to as an "open-air prison" now looks like a giant graveyard for its two million inhabitants caught in a war that is expected to last for months.
10,000 people have been killed so far in Gaza, including an inconceivable toll of 4,000 children.
On the other side of the Israeli fence that has long encircled Gaza's borders, feelings of sadness, anger and despair are shattering the Israeli families of the 1,400 soldiers and civilians killed during and after the unprecedented October 7 attacks by Hamas, as well as the relatives of 240 hostages.
Many of their towns, farm lands and vineyards have been abandoned and now resemble ghost cities in the aftermath of the deadliest attacks in Israel's history.
The intelligence failure severely undermined confidence in the security apparatus, the backbone of the country's stability since its creation in 1948. It also deepened a political rift among members of the most extreme right-wing Israeli coalition, while Benjamin Netanyahu, the country's longest-serving leader, faces a reckoning.
"It's absolutely clear that nothing like this has happened before in terms of magnitude and surprise," Ghaith Al Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The National.
"I think no one took the information available and managed to link the dots and understand that Hamas was ready for a big fight."
Meanwhile, the conflict sent shock waves throughout the Middle East, triggering new areas of confrontation and risking an escalation that could potentially plunge the region into a broader war.
"All the pieces are in place for a major explosion in the Middle East," warned the Carnegie Middle East Centre in a recent report.
Air strikes and a fire spreading
For many, one thing is for sure: this war has changed the course of their lives.
"Our hands have been broken once and many times. How much is enough?" asked a tearful Helmi Nabil, 56, whose house in Gaza was destroyed a few weeks after he bought it with his life savings.
In 2005, Israel withdrew troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip after having occupied the 45 square kilometres of territory since 1967. It retained control of the airspace and maritime border and has maintained a blockade of Gaza since 2007, strictly controlling the passage of people and goods.
The current war is the fifth since Hamas scored a surprise victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 and then seized full control of Gaza, overthrowing forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas.
But it is the bloodiest of all.
"The number of people being killed is so staggering it cannot be collateral any more," the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) wrote on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter. UNRWA has lost 72 staff members in Israeli strikes.
In its quest to "eradicate" Hamas, Israel has hammered Gaza with air strikes, street by street, claiming it was hitting military targets but striking houses, tower blocks, ambulances, hospitals, schools, cars and more.
Almost a quarter of Gaza buildings have been destroyed or damaged, according to the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor. In the first five days of the war, Israel dropped about 6,000 bombs and published on its social media accounts photos of entire neighbourhoods razed.
"We will continue," its air force said on X.
The fire in Gaza is also spreading to parts of the West Bank in the occupied Palestinian territories. Tension in mixed communities inside Israel is also running high.
About 130 Palestinians have now been killed in clashes with troops or Jewish settlers in the West Bank since the Israel-Gaza war began.
Fear of displacement and 'apocalyptic' conflict
The level of human cost and destruction in Gaza has sent thousands of people on to the streets of Washington DC and other cities around the globe to demand a ceasefire that Israel is rejecting.
US President Joe Biden's administration has faced mounting domestic and global pressure to try to moderate Israel's deadly response.
After repeating that there is "no red line" for Israel's response, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a shift of focus, called during a tour in the region for a "humanitarian pause" and said maximum assistance must reach Gaza, arguing that a full ceasefire would enable Hamas to "regroup".
However, his tour had two other goals: to discuss what post-war Gaza would look like and ways to prevent a broader conflict.
Two Arab officials told The National that one of the scenarios is to hand over the authority in the Strip back to the Palestinian Authority "but only when Hamas has been entirely removed".
"Hamas isn't just an organisation but an ideology," argued Mr Al Omari.
"Hamas has assets elsewhere living comfortably in Doha, Qatar – in Lebanon, and this presence has deepened in recent months."
Meanwhile, Arab neighbours fear the Israeli invasion will spark a new permanent mass wave of displacement. Millions of Palestinians who were forced to flee more than seven decades ago have remained stranded as refugees in the countries that hosted them.
As the war in Gaza turns into urban warfare, attacks by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq against US forces and border clashes between Lebanon militia continue to intensify. An off-script threat also emerged from Yemen after Houthi rebels attempted to target Israel from the Red Sea, posing a significant threat to the strategic route of oil tankers and trade.
Apart from the catastrophic expected loss of life, the economic impact of a regional war would have far-reaching implications for global long-term security and economic stability.
"The hydrocarbon sector will not be spared the economic ramifications," warned the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as the global economy recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia's war with Ukraine.
"The more Hamas is walled-in, the more we will see attacks by Iran-backed proxies. Any miscalculation could lead to a broader apocalyptic conflict," said one Arab diplomat in Beirut.