The Eye of the Storm
During a lull in the fighting, Gaza’s residents returned to assess the damage and came away without hope.
BEIT HANOUN, Gaza — The destruction is total. No building has been left untouched by Israel’s bombardment in the Masryeen neighborhood in this northeast Gaza town. Mounds of rubble line the streets where buildings once stood. Dead horses and donkeys lie in the road, stiff with rigor mortis. Even colors have been erased. The entire area is covered in gray cement dust, a monochromatic wasteland. The smell of death lingers in the air as the bodies yet to be retrieved from the debris decompose in the summer heat. The sounds of shelling and airstrikes have stopped but the buzzing of the drones remains.
A 12-hour humanitarian truce agreed to by Israel and Hamas took hold on Saturday morning, allowing residents displaced from the areas hardest hit by Israel’s assault to return to their neighborhoods for the first time in days. Gaza health officials said more than 100 bodies were recovered during the lull, bringing the Palestinian death toll above 1,000, the vast majority of them civilians, including more than 200 children. Forty-three Israeli soldiers and three civilians in Israel have also been killed. On Sunday, as the conflict entered its 2oth day, Israel announced that it would extend the quiet for 24 hours, but a more lasting cease-fire remains elusive. (And by Sunday’s end in Gaza, the fighting had resumed.)
"We don’t just want a humanitarian truce; we want a total cease-fire that will end the siege. Truce after truce is not what we’re looking for," Ihab al-Hussein, Hamas’s deputy information minister, told me in an interview on Saturday in Gaza City. "This is not a real truce because that would mean Israel pulling out its tanks from Gaza," he said. "We didn’t start this war; we don’t want it. If you ask Palestinian people they say they want a cease-fire but with an agreement to end the siege."
In the hours leading up the temporary cease-fire, the Israeli air force dropped 100 bombs, each containing a ton of explosives, on Beit Hanoun, a town in northeastern Gaza close to the borders with Israel, according to Haaretz. Many of Beit Hanoun’s 30,000 residents had fled the area.
The devastation is so complete that some residents who returned during the temporary cease-fire on Saturday could not locate where their homes once stood. A man walked alone in the middle of the road, surveying the wreckage. "This is a town of ghosts, not people," he said aloud to himself.
Hamza al-Masry, a 27-year-old from al-Masryeen, sat crouched atop a pile of broken cement and twisted rebar that used to be his family home, a four-story apartment building that once housed 50 people. He came back to try to salvage something. There was nothing left.
"I couldn’t get anything out. I can’t even find clothes," he said. "I only have the ones I am wearing." He says he left his home with his family on Monday and sought refuge in a nearby United Nations school. The shelter was shelled on Thursday as 1,500 displaced Palestinians were gathered in the schoolyard, awaiting buses to transfer them to another area.
Al-Masry said at least four shells hit the school, sending hundreds fleeing into the streets in panic. Sixteen people were killed and 200 wounded in the attack. Displaced again, al-Masry is now staying at another U.N. school, in Jabalia, further south. "We don’t want a cease-fire anymore," he said. "After the destruction we have seen, all we want is resistance."
An initial 12-hour humanitarian pause in the fighting was all that the two sides could agree to. Israel rejected international proposals for a seven-day-long cease-fire on Friday, media outlets in Israel reported.
"The ball is in Israel’s court; it has to respond to the international community," Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas spokesman and member of parliament, told me in an interview on Sunday in Gaza City. "If the siege continues, the resistance will continue the siege of the airport in Tel Aviv," he said, referring to rocket fire out of Gaza that has disrupted flight traffic at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport. "Our demands are the demands of the Palestinian people."
One of the bloodiest days of the conflict came on July 20, when Israel pummeled Shejaiya, a neighborhood east of Gaza City, forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee. Thousands returned to the area for the first time on Saturday after the temporary cease-fire came into effect at 8:00 a.m.
By midday, they poured out of the neighborhood, carrying what little they could salvage before the bombs started falling again. Clothes were bundled into sheets and slung over backs, mattresses piled on the roofs of cars, families’ few remaining belongings crammed onto rickshaws and donkey carts.
"It looks like another Nakba," said a bystander, referring to the Arabic for "catastrophe," the term Palestinians use for the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands during the formation of the state of Israel in 1948.
On Shejaiya’s al-Nazzaz street, every other building has been smashed into the ground. Debris is everywhere. Om Mohammed Sukkar sat on the curb opposite what is left of her home. A bulldozer cleared rubble away. She was waiting for it to dig her son’s body from underneath the house. She had fled early on the morning of July 20, the day the assault on Shejaiya began. Her 25-year-old son, Mohamed, refused to leave. She said he was "in the resistance" and that she is proud of it. But she wants an end to the fighting. "We don’t want war. We want to live in our houses," she said. "A temporary cease-fire is not enough."
Some Shejaiya residents had held out hope that their homes would be spared, only to find utter devastation. Ahmed al-Jamal, a 60-year-old grandfather, sat on a plastic chair in front of the wreckage of his home. "I had no idea it was destroyed," he said. He stared at the floor, picking absently at a piece of wire by his foot. "I came to get my things during the cease-fire and I found nothing. I don’t know where we’ll go."
His nephew, Ahmed al-Jamal, 27, said he called his mother in the morning to tell her the house had been razed and she had a heart attack upon hearing the news and was taken to hospital. "None of us are in the resistance," he said, adding that he volunteers for the Red Cross and his brother is a doctor at a children’s hospital. "I am living in a U.N. school now but when the war ends I will come back here and set up a tent. This is my land — I won’t leave it for the occupiers to occupy."
At another torn-up building, Ataf Ettish, a Health Ministry administrator and a mother of four, sat across from her home, muttering words of prayer. The building’s facade has been ripped away, exposing her daughter’s bedroom. The walls are painted pink and blue. Ettish evacuated last week with her family and is now staying at a U.N. school. She said they are living 50 people crammed into a single classroom. "Imagine more than 2,000 people using two toilets," she said. "I never imagined I could live this life." According to the United Nations, at least 165,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been displaced since the conflict began, more than double the number during Israel’s 2008-2009 assault.
Ettish does not expect the temporary cease-fire to last long. "The worst is coming. We don’t know what they are planning," she said. "I wish to see Netanyahu in Hell, burning there."
Even the shaky cease-fires are only temporary. Ettish’s pessimism doesn’t seem misplaced. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempts to broker a longer cease-fire have failed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that his government would do "whatever is necessary" to defeat Hamas. Hamas, for its part, said it will not stop fighting until Israeli troops are removed from Gaza and displaced residents are able to return home.
In central Gaza City, the streets came alive during the pause in fighting. Traffic congested the roads, shops opened for business, and people rushed to banks to collect salaries and withdraw cash. In the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood, the street market was once again bustling with the cacophony of urban life. Residents were stocking up on food and goods, expecting only a temporary respite. Many believe more bloodshed is in store.
"The war will continue," said Mohamed Shaaban, a 23-year-old selling roasted pumpkin seeds. "Negotiations won’t help the Palestinian people. The Israelis have to pull out their tanks and open the crossings. People have no work, no future, and nothing to hope for here."