Israel-Gaza conflict: After the shelling stopped, Gazans search for their dead and injured

The people of Shujaiya, Gaza, used the Israeli ceasefire to scour the rubble for bodies and stock up on essentials. Kim Sengupta joined them

Kim Sengupta
Sunday 27 July 2014 00:06 BST
A general view of destroyed buildings after Israeli attacks in a part of the Shuja'iyya neighbourhood in east Gaza City
A general view of destroyed buildings after Israeli attacks in a part of the Shuja'iyya neighbourhood in east Gaza City (EPA)

Four members of the Al-Najjar family woke up yesterday morning to a day of truce, holding out flickering hopes of an end to the bloodbath. Twenty-one others, including 14 children, did not make it through the night; they were buried beneath their four-storey home which had collapsed after a missile strike.

A 12-hour ceasefire – 19 days and more than 1,000 lives into the conflict – led to frenetic activity as residents stocked up on the essentials, food, water and cooking fuel. Some also shopped for the celebration of Eid due in the next few days marking the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. Later in the day, the Israeli government extended the ceasefire until midnight – but Hamas rejected the offer. Families had tentatively ventured on to streets that had previously been deserted in the evenings. Israel reportedly said last night that mortars were fired from Gaza into Israel just after the end of the initial truce.

But Gaza is a very small place, and just a few hundred metres from the open stores and traffic jams were very different scenes in districts which had been pulverised. Figures retrieved what they could from houses they had been forced to abandon, scrabbled through rubble for relations and friends who may be trapped, clutching the arms of emergency service personnel as they asked for help.

A wrecked sign of a happier past
A wrecked sign of a happier past (AFP)

Hussein Al-Najjar had no hopes of finding anyone alive in the crater full of debris and twisted steel which had once been the family home. Among those lost were his 18-month-old daughter Somiya, six-year-old son Mowtaz and wife Rehan, who was eight months pregnant; 24 members of her side of the family, the Abu-Jamaas, had been killed in another strike last week in the same neighbourhood of Khan Younis.

"We didn't know anything about this ceasefire. Just a few hours later they stopped bombing, just a few hours and we would have been all right. We don't know why they decided to bomb our house with so many women and children. We are just poor people, we have nothing to do with politics. We did not receive any warning, why did they do it?" he asked. "Some of the family had come from another place, there was a lot of killings where they were. They thought they were safe here."

The relations had come from Khozaa, straddling the Israeli border, a scene of fierce fighting. Ambulances were not allowed in there yesterday, despite the ceasefire. Driving into the area, we came across Israeli Merkeva tanks in a convoy, gun turrets swinging on to the entrance of each street they passed. In neighbouring Abassan, residents who had come to check on their houses fled as a train of dust, kicked up by armour, began to approach.

The injured and dead were picked up from outlying areas of Khozaa. Eighteen bodies were taken to the European Hospital in Khan Younis. Aziza al-Sabah, who had gone with her husband to collect her brother's body for burial, burst into loud sobs. She could not identify the remains, torn up by shrapnel, blackened and bloated after six days in the open.

Dr Atha Al-Jaabari said: "Actually, most of the bodies cannot be identified, because of the extent of the injuries and the decomposition. One of those we did manage to identify was from the Rafaa area, it was of Hiyam, her name is Hiyam Abu-Mour, one of our nurses, she has been missing for five days."

More than 100 bodies were recovered yesterday from across Gaza. Many were from Shujaiya, where entire streets of homes had been hit, sometimes repeatedly. It reminded me of Salheddine in Aleppo, mounds made of smashed buildings, roads covered in masonry and glass and the same sickly, sweet smell from corpses buried beneath.

Wissan Bakran and some of his family were stuck for two days in their home on the east of the town. "There were men in there, four of them," he pointed at a house about 70 metres away. "They were wounded, they were crying for help, but we couldn't get to them because there was so much shooting. We called the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, but they couldn't get in there either."

The four men were found, at last, yesterday morning, dead, their bodies carried to an ambulance by the neighbours. Mr Bakran shook his head: "They may be alive now if they got medical treatment." He was carrying a cage with two cockatiels. "We couldn't take them in all the hurry, so we just put some food and water in the cage, it is amazing with animals, how they can survive."

Suddenly, there were prolonged bursts of shooting. There had been half a dozen houses between that of the Bakrans and the border: they had all been destroyed, now there was a clear field of fire. People threw themselves on the ground, some getting cut by the jagged debris.

It was unclear why someone had decided to pull the trigger, it may have been movements in the upper stories overlooking Israeli positions. To those around me, however, it was another example of the enemy's perfidy. "They think people would be relaxed because of the ceasefire, we normally won't be here, then they try to kill us," was the view of Khalid Abdullah, 18.

A group of paramedics went in search of a man who had lost contact with his family as they evacuated. I joined them. After 15 minutes of struggling through what had been a set of houses, Ahmed Moussa Abed was found. He was beyond help, the top half of his burned body sticking out of concrete slabs in deep hole.

Gaza City: A young Palestinian man stands in his bombed bedroom
Gaza City: A young Palestinian man stands in his bombed bedroom (EPA)

"We are going to leave him there for later. We simply haven't got the equipment to get him out of there now," said Mohammed Abu Amran, a paramedic. " We know we have the ceasefire, but the Israelis keep shooting at us from time to time, we have had injuries. We also don't know if this ceasefire will last, we need to keep working as it can end any time. Also, every single casualty is taking a very long time to get out."

It was not just people, however, being retrieved. Men were piling up boxes coming out of a large charred shell. It had been the home and storage space for the Dwaima family, big in the Gaza watch and consumer electronics trade. "We have lost over a million dollars worth of stock," said Imad Dwaima, 29. "But there is some left and we have Eid coming up; why should we waste an opportunity?"

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