Gaza counts the cost – and assigns blame

Donald Macintyre, reporting from a devastated village, finds Palestinians divided over how their lives can be rebuilt, and who is going to pay for it

Two weeks after an uneasy ceasefire ended Israel's 22-day offensive, Gaza is still struggling to come to terms with the cost of more than 1,300 Palestinian lives, more than 5,000 injuries and the total or partial destruction of some 20,000 homes. Last night Chris Gunness, chief spokesman for the UN Relief and Works agency, which has budgeted more than $300m (£205m) for an emergency food, health and repair package, said there was an "overwhelming" need for "industrial-scale building materials to be brought into Gaza to begin the task of rehabilitation, and that is before reconstruction in earnest even begins".

The loss and devastation faced by Gazan civilians is as apparent in this rural village, a mere 1.5 kilometres from the Israeli border, as anywhere. Juhr al Dik is agricultural land, notably green by Gaza standards, but a month ago Israeli forces arrived here early in their ground offensive, establishing bases in some of the homes. Tank tracks are still visible where they swept west towards the sea, cutting the Gaza Strip in half.

By the time the forces withdrew two weeks ago, and the residents returned from the temporary shelter in the nearby Bureij refugee camp, the forces had demolished 165 houses, displacing nearly half the 2,500 population, and razed olive groves, citrus orchards and sheep pastures, according to the local mayor, Salim Mohammed. Asked yesterday how he will set about reconstructing the shattered community here, Mr Mohammed said simply: "I have no idea."

This was not the only shock visited on the residents of Juhr al Dik. At around 6.15am on 4 January, the first full day of the ground offensive, a shell landed at the house of the civilian Abu Hajaj family, the shrapnel injuring 12-year-old Manar. The Palestinian Red Crescent and the Red Cross said their ambulances could not get through because of the presence of the army. Badly scared, the family of 15 fled down the lane and took shelter in the basement occupied by their neighbour, Mohammed al-Safadi, about 250 metres to the east, and 10 other members of his family. The group included 17 children under 12.

Mr al-Safadi, 59, a carpenter, said the Israeli military broke into radio broadcasts to announce those in border areas should leave their homes, holding white flags. His son Ahmed, 23, and Majda Abu Hajaj, 35, tied white scarves to sticks and led the group out. As they passed the their home, they saw tanks that opened fire on them.

Mr al-Safadi was carrying his year-old son, Mohammed, and walking close to Majda's 65-year-old mother, Raya. He and Majda's brother both say Majda fell dead, apparently shot in the back, as the group ran back the way it had come and that Raya was also shot. Mr al-Safadi grabbed the wounded grandmother and they ran for the cover of the Abu Hajaj house. "She was saying, 'My hand, my hand' and then she lost her breath and died," he said.

The rest of the group made it back to Mr al-Safadi's, despite what the families say was continued fire – and some shelling on the surrounding open land – from the tanks. After a night back in the house the group decided, says Mr al-Safadi, "that it was better to be shot while we are walking than shelled in our home". They used the cover of trees to make their way back to the centre of the village, and on to the relative safety of the Bureij camp. The bodies of Majda and Raya were not recovered until the ceasefire 19 days later.

Only four people died during the military's presence in Juhr al Dik. But this incident, one of several being examined by Human Rights Watch in which residents allege they were shot at while holding white flags, underlines the dangers that were faced by residents told to leave their homes during the offensive. The military said last night an "initial inquiry shows that the houses in question were destroyed because they were booby-trapped, used to hide tunnels or used as bases for firing and sniping against IDF forces, thus directly threatening the lives of the soldiers." This was again denied yesterday by other residents including the mayor, whose own house was destroyed. "From here, no way," he said. "From Gaza perhaps or other places, but from here, nothing."

Yet even if that were not the case, both the al-Safadi and Abu Hajaj families are adamant there was no militant activity in the area where the two women – including Majda, who was holding the white flag – were killed.

Mohammed al-Safadi's problems, however, were not over. For he, too returned to find his house destroyed, along with his car, a bulldozer, and what he says was $100,000 worth of equipment used by his carpentry business. He has so far received $1,000 from Hamas in compensation for the loss of his house.

Reconstruction of his and thousands of other homes depend on a more permanent ceasefire, and on the reopening of the crossings from Israel into Gaza. Both Israel and the US are seeking the direct involvement of the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's rival Ramallah-based administration in any deal.

But when it comes to attitudes to Hamas in the wake of the fighting, the popular jury among Palestinians in Gaza is very much out. Acknowledging that Hamas proclaimed a victory with the siege still in place, middle-class Gazans joke that "three more victories like this and there won't be any Gaza left".

There are also fears that Hamas will tighten repressive measures against dissidents, after a wave of shootings and arrests. A Fatah activist, Eyad Obeid, says he was in a shop near his home last week when a 4x4 vehicle pulled up. Four masked men carrying AK-47s seized him, took him away and subjected him to an ordeal which ended with him being shot in his left leg below the knee. Fatah says there were dozens of similar incidents during and after the war. And this is beside the killings – admitted by Hamas – of those suspected of informing Israel of Hamas targets.

Mr Obeid, who was not accused of informing, says he was repeatedly questioned about his Fatah connections and his previous job in Ramallah-run Preventative Security before being pulled out of the car and shot.

And if the Israeli bombing all around them was not enough to worry about, the most horrifying moment of the war for the Najar family started at around 7.30pm on 4 January, when 10 masked, armed Palestinians in black tunics descended on the alley where the menfolk were gathered outside their house in northern Gaza City round a pot of tea over a wood fire, necessitated by the lack of electricity or cooking gas.

The men all obeyed the gunmen's orders to lie on the ground except Hisham, 51, who asked the men what they wanted. Women and children came out from the house to see what was happening. One of the men slapped Hisham, others rose to intervene, and the gunmen opened fire. Hisham was killed, and 11 others were wounded, including his 70-year-old mother and her 12-year-old granddaughter. "For me a rocket from the Israelis would be better than this," said Mohammed Najar, 41, the dead man's brother. "The children are still terrified at what happened. They wet themselves at night."

The family admits to supporting Fatah but says there was no reason to attack them; they are careful not to accuse Hamas but Mohammed complains that the faction, as the ruling authority in Gaza, has done nothing to investigate the crime.

For some in Gaza, Hamas as well as Israel is to blame for the bloodshed. At least 30 members of the Samouni family were killed by Israeli shelling in Zeitoun, and Ahmad Samouni, 23, is enraged with Israel, but he described Hamas as "the worst word" for not avoiding the war. Others of the bereaved have reacted – whether temporarily or not – in the opposite way.

The stricken Moeen Deeb, 40, who rushed home on the day of the nearby shelling of the UN school in Jabalya to find his wife, three daughters, two sons, his niece and two nephews killed by two shells which fell on his own house, was long an adherent of the Democratic Front, the first faction to support a two-state solution back in the Seventies. "Now I think this is our land," he said. "[The Israelis] should get out of all Palestine."

Mohammed Daya returned from the mosque on 6 January to find his five-storey apartment building wrecked, probably by artillery shelling. At least 22 of his family died, including his pregnant wife Tezal, his daughters Amani, seven, Qamer, six, Areej, four, and his son Yusef, three. Their bodies are not among the 13 recovered, but are presumed still buried under rubble. Struggling to make sense of the loss, he too claimed unconvincingly that the outcome was "a victory" for "the Palestinian people" on the grounds that civilians rather than Hamas fighters were killed. "They went to paradise, but the Israelis will go to hell."

Back at Juhr al Dik, however, Mustafa al Nahabin, 61, is reflecting on the destruction of the house of his injured 43-year-old son, Maher, and the fact that his own house, and that of his nephew Usama, were occupied by Israeli troops after they left for Bureij.

Mr al Nahabin says initially that he thinks the war will increase support for Hamas, for whom he voted in 2006. Then he admits his views could change, depending whether it is Hamas or Mr Abbas who delivers reconstruction. "In 2006 we voted for change and reform," he says ruefully. "We got change, but we didn't get reform."

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