Rafah, a landscape scarred by Israel's war

The southernmost city in Gaza has suffered mightily at Israeli hands in recent years, but Donald Macintyre was not ready for what he found there

Even in the darkness, we could see the piles of rubble: one had been the police station, destroyed in the heavy bombing on the first day of Israel's offensive, killing 22 Hamas policemen; another pile accounted for the houses that had been destroyed around Muntasa, a favoured children's play area and park which the Israelis say militants had used for firing rockets – residents deny the claim. The park is no more, a field of smashed masonry and concrete.

Rafah, the southernmost city of Gaza, probably suffered more than any other from the eight long years of conflict before the start of Operation Cast Lead but even on the short journey here from the Egyptian border, some of the new devastation visited on the area and its inhabitants was evident. The Hamas mayor of Rafah had been building a new house for himself; it had been pulverised and lay in ruins.

Earlier, as we entered Gaza from Egypt – among the first Western journalists to do so – the red lights of Palestinian ambulances flashing against a darkening sky as medics unloaded the wounded at the border were the first real sign of the war that had raged for three weeks. A boy, perhaps 15 years old, was delicately lifted from one ambulance to another, the medics struggling to prevent the drips attached to him from tangling.

As night fell over Rafah, from which thousands had fled to escape the relentless bombing of the smuggling tunnels along the border, you could still hear a pilotless Israeli drone overhead, a reminder of how uneasy the ceasefire that began at 2am yesterday will be.

The Harb family were reinstalling the windows of their second-floor apartment, little more than 500m from the border. Even without fuel for the generator to heat the house during the power cuts, explained Jawwad Harb, it was preferable to expose his six children to the January cold, using coats and blankets to protect them, rather than risk them being cut by glass during the scores of repeated explosions that had shaken the house.

"The Israelis were using a weapon that seemed to go deep underground," said Mr Harb. "It sent out waves like an earthquake. It was like being in an earthquake every hour."

Mr Harb, who works for the humanitarian organisation, Care, said he had felt helpless during the airstrikes as he snuggled against his children, trying to comfort them with the idea that the bombing they could hear would be "very temporary".

He recalled that when he had said this, his 15-year-old daughter, Banyas, had replied: "This is temporary for ever", meaning that she "is forever moving from war to war since she was born. Then my six-year-old son, Ziad, asked me 'are we going to die?' That really broke my heart."

With electricity blackouts periodically cutting water supplies to the apartment, Mr Harb set out one day to fetch 20 litres of clean water from the local desalination plant.

"On my way back there were four airstrikes. Some people poured out the water and ran away. But I have six children at home in need of clean water so I hugged my canisters to my chest like something precious and kept on till I got home."

But the worst day, he said, was probably last Friday.

As we waited in vain on the other side of the crossing for the Egyptians to let us in to Gaza on Saturday, we had watched what seemed fairly relentless bombing sorties of F16s streaking across the sky along the border.

But Mr Harb said this was nothing compared to the previous day. Their house is near the offices – empty since the beginning of the offensive – of the Hamas "benevolent association", part of the social network which has helped to form its political base.

When the family heard the bombing start at about 3.30pm, the children had run out of their houses, terrified, and their families had been obliged to follow them. Nearly the whole neighbourhood had run about 200m up the street and waited for about two-and-a-half hours until it was simply too cold for the children to stay out of doors.

Mr Harb's neighbour Mohammed Jeish, 36, described how his two-year-old son Khaled had started suffering headaches and loss of appetite. "When I took him to the doctor, he asked if he had been scared recently. Of course he had. It was psychological." But the Harb family knows well that even these privations are far exceeded by many of those likely to come to light in the coming days across Gaza.

Mr Harb's good friend, Walid al Zubi, a construction engineer, was one of the many men arrested in the intense fighting in the Tel al Hawa district of southern Gaza City last Thursday. Mr Al Zubi had described to him how nine soldiers had arrived at his apartment, taken away his wife, his six-year-old daughter and infant son, and opened intimidatory fire at the walls and television.

Mr Al Zubi, who Mr Harb says has no connection with any political faction, was then blindfolded and interrogated for an hour about the identity and whereabouts of armed gunmen before being taken down to a basement, where he realised that his had not been the only apartment attacked.

The military had handed over his wife and children to the Palestinian Red Crescent but Mr Al Zubi did not know that until he was told at 7am that he could go and pick them up. That, said Mr Harb, was part of the pressure put on him to give information. He had described to Mr Harb his night of anxiety as a "new synonym for pain".

Asked about Israel's charge that Hamas, because it operates in residential areas, is to blame for putting in harm's way the many hundreds of civilians who are part of the total casualty toll of more than 1,200, Mr Harb said: "I am not a politician. But according to the Geneva Convention civilians must be able to leave the war area and the battlefields. In other places this may happen. Only in Gaza it seems they are prevented from leaving the battlefield."

In other areas of Gaza yesterday, Palestinians – 60,000 or so are estimated by the UN to have fled their homes in the past three weeks – slowly began returning to their shattered homes, on foot or using donkeys and carts, loaded up with mattresses, and household belongings.

In Beit Lahiya, rescue workers used bulldozers to pull scores of dead bodies, many of them believed to be Hamas fighters, from debris.

Last night, Gaza's de facto Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, in hiding since the Israeli onslaught began, declared "victory" over Israel.

He said his movement's decision to match Israel's unilateral ceasefire with its own truce, announced 12 hours after Israel's came into being, was "wise and responsible".

In a broadcast, he said: "The enemy has failed to achieve its goals". In Rafah, reporters who had been denied access to Gaza for three weeks, arrived to be greeted by Ghazi Hamad, a senior adviser to Mr Haniyeh, who is very much at the more pragmatic end of the Hamas spectrum and therefore not necessarily representative of the Islamic faction's political hard-liners, let alone its military wing.

But Mr Hamad lost little time in warning that the ceasefire was precarious, and that if Israel did not withdraw its forces within a week, then "resistance" would resume.

Even with shops open again in Rafah yesterday – with people venturing out to buy supplies and with the guns, tanks and warplanes silent for the first time in three weeks – no one is counting on the war not starting again.