With a cease-fire between Israel and militants hours old, Nafez al-Khudari and his family collected their mattresses, blankets and clothes and began hitchhiking back to the Gaza City home they’d fled almost a month earlier.
The drive across the territory’s biggest city yesterday from a United Nations refuge in the west to the Shuja’iya neighborhood was slow going. They stared out of the car windows at crowded, rubble-strewn streets and the remains of buildings crushed by Israeli artillery and aircraft. Men, women and children clambered over garbage and masonry in search of anything worth salvaging.
“Gaza, poor Gaza. May God protect us,” al-Khudari, 50, said as he contemplated the scene he’d returned to with his wife and five children. “It’s as if an earthquake struck. I haven’t seen such destruction in my life except on television.”
Shuja’iya saw some of the most severe bombardments of the four-week Israeli offensive against Islamist militants in Gaza, which halted early yesterday. Satellite photos taken before and during the assault and released by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research last week show parts of northeastern Gaza razed. As many as a quarter of the strip’s 1.8 million people may be displaced with the homes of 10,690 families destroyed or heavily damaged, according to the UN.
The Israeli military, which dropped leaflets and sent text messages warning residents to leave the area, said fighters of the Hamas movement that runs Gaza had turned Shuja’iya, just over the border fence from Israel, into “a fortress” dotted with command centers, gun stores and sites from where they launched rocket attacks on Israeli communities.
Army operations in the area found openings to 10 tunnels dug by militants to stage raids on Israel, almost a third of the 32 the military said it detected and destroyed across Gaza. Israel, like the U.S. and European Union, considers Hamas a terrorist organization.
Arriving at his two-floor house, al-Khudari found it only slightly damaged. He shook hands, hugged and kissed his neighbors as his wife and children went inside. No power supply meant the fridge was full of rotting food. Shards of glass from shattered windows covered the floor. Furniture was covered in dust that blew through the house as buildings nearby collapsed.
“Thank God for two things,” he said. “My family and I are fine, and my house wasn’t completely destroyed. At home there’s nothing, no water and no power, but if the cease-fire goes on and succeeds, all of this can be fixed.”
Under a 72-hour truce brokered by Egypt, Israeli aircraft that had fired thousands of missiles on Gaza disappeared from the skies. Israel also withdrew the last of its soldiers after declaring their mission -- the destruction of the tunnels -- accomplished.
Gaza’s health ministry says that of the more than 1,800 Palestinians killed in 28 days of fighting, the majority were civilians. Israel said it killed between 750 and 1,000 militants.
The territory’s population, who jostle for space in an area the size of Detroit, was caught between Israeli forces and gunmen of groups including Hamas’s Al-Qassam Brigades and Islamic Jihad. The UN, the U.S. and Israel accuse the militants of endangering lives by storing weapons and carrying out attacks from densely packed residential neighborhoods. Sixty-six Iraelis, including two civilians, and a foreign worker in Israel were killed.
The losses are again testing the resilience of people in Gaza, which Israel began blockading in 2006, later joined by Egypt, after Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections that year. More than 50 percent of youths are unemployed and four-fifths of people receive international aid, according to the U.K. charity Oxfam.
Al-Khudari’s wife, Duaa, smiled as she swept up shattered glass. “My neighbors and I will start cleaning and washing the house and it will be clean and beautiful again.”
She said she knows her family is among the lucky ones.
Khaled Harara, 45, and his 17-year-old son Shadi, who sought shelter at the same UN refuge as Nafez and Duaa, returned to find their home destroyed.
“Our house looks like pieces of biscuits,” he said. “I paid with my blood over the past 15 years to build up this house for me and my family, it’s all that I own.”
They shoveled through rubble, looking for clothes, blankets, pieces of furniture that could be reassembled.
“Tell me what can I do? Who is going to compensate me for losing my property?” Harara said. After considering looking for a tent to pitch on the ruins of his house, he decided to return to the al-Bahrain shelter where families sleep in crowded classrooms and join long lines waiting for water.
“Everyone here is responsible,” he said. “I don’t want to mention names of countries or movements, but each one of them is responsible.”