Palestinians in Gaza distrust the silence

As the guns fall silent, MENASSAT's Ola Mahdoun assesses the situation on the ground in Gaza where the death toll continues to mount now that paramedics feel safe enough to get to those trapped under the rubble.
Scenes of destruction - Gazans are surveying the damage as the ceasefire appears to be holding. © Ola Mahdoun

GAZA, January 19, 2009 (MENASSAT) — The Israeli decision on Saturday night January 17 to unilaterally halt military activities in the Gaza Strip has had a measurable effect on Palestinian street life in the last two days.

On Sunday, Palestinians went to dig through the rubble of their demolished homes, and to visit the families of the dead and injured.

The outpouring of emotions was intense. People were in disbelief, with one sentiment expressed uniformly: they were lucky to survive the carnage because everyone in the Gaza Strip was at risk of death or injury during the 22-day Israeli assault.

When grown men cry

Amid the smoldering ruins, small businesses that usually dominate commerce in neighborhoods throughout Gaza City remained closed on Sunday, with the exception of some bare grocery stores and the odd bakery with long queues of people looking to buy bread.

There was an uneasy distrust of the ceasefire agreement, and as the sun set on Sunday, Gaza's streets gradually emptied because it was at night that Israel carried out some of its deadliest air assaults.

Residents of Gaza City came out in larger numbers and more shops opened for business on Monday, after Hamas and other armed factions announced that they would stop launching Qassam rockets on Israeli cities and adhere to a week-long truce to allow for Israel to pull out their troops.

Some 45,000 Gazans who took refuge in UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) schools during the 22 days of bombardment, took stock of the damage done to their homes before returning back to the same schools on the first day of the ceasefire.

Most Gazans that MENASSAT spoke to said their homes were no longer standing. The devastation shocked even the oldest inhabitants of Gaza.

Abu Khaled Al-Hajj Ali left the UNRWA school the minute he heard about the ceasefire to check on his house in northern Gaza.

"I wish I hadn't gone," he told MENASSAT.

Abu Khaled said he hardly recognized the location where his two-story house stood because of the destruction.

"There was only a bunch of stones left. I tried to get some of my clothes but I couldn't find anything; everything was destroyed and buried under the rubble. I don't know what I will do in the future. I lost the only home I have for me and my family, and now I have to return to the UNRWA schools again," he said while trying to hide his crying from his family.

"I'm ashamed of myself. Some people have lost their children," Abu Khaled said. "But I can't not cry over the house. All my life's savings went into building it."

The town formerly known as Al-Atatira

Roaming the streets of Gaza, MENASSAT met many other Palestinians whose homes were destroyed.

According to most accounts, the villages in the north of the Gaza Strip sustained the heaviest damage during the war, especially in Al-Atatira, which was completely annihilated.

"I can't believe this is the main road leading to my house in al-Atatira," said Salma Massoud. "They tilled the ground and the asphalt, and destroyed all the apartments."

Massoud returned to check on her house as soon as Israel announced a unilateral ceasefire. She said she left home at the beginning of the Israeli offensive on Gaza on December 27th. Al-Atatira was completely surrounded by Israeli tanks after the January 3 Israeli ground invasion.

"Our homes were completely destroyed and razed to the ground by the tanks. There is no longer a town called Al-Atatira; it has become a dump," Massoud said.

Oum Bassil al-Mouqawasi also returned to her house in Bet Hanoun, in the north of Gaza, to find nothing left of her house but ashes. The army had burned down her house.  

"Even my clothes were burned. I don't know what to do. I can't live in the house and I can't find any apartment for rent in Gaza. Even the UNRWA schools are filled to capacity and can't help us," she said.

Rising death toll

Despite the commitment of Hamas and other armed factions to a week-long ceasefire, sources on the ground said Israeli warships continued to shell locations in Gaza on Monday, causing no injuries but confirming that violence still could erupt at any moment.

On other fronts, Palestinian medics set about recovering the injured and the dead trapped beneath the rubble of destroyed buildings—areas that could not be reached during the 22-day assault.

Yesterday, paramedics removed 100 dead bodies from underneath the rubble, most of them children, women and the elderly, medics said. Medical sources also said they found bodies of people trapped inside their houses or left in the streets.

Most bodies were found in the north and north-west of the Strip, in the areas of Jabal al-Kashef, Jabal al-Rayes, eastern Jabalia, al-Qorm, Izbit Abed Rabbo, al-Atatira, al-Salatin, and al-Fakhari.  

Dr. Mouawiya Hassanen, general manager of the Gaza emergency services, told MENASSAT that paramedics removed 10 Palestinians from under the rubble on Monday, bringing the number of victims to 1,310 killed, with more than 5,500 injured.

Among the people killed, Dr. Hassanen said that 418 were children, 111 women, 123 elderly, 16 paramedics and members of the Civil Defense, four journalists and five foreigners.

In the al-Zaytoun residential district, east of Gaza City, medics dug up most of the bodies of the Al-Sammouni family. The Al-Sammouni's lost 30 people when Israel bombed a house where some 110 members of the immediate and extended family had taken refuge.

Eyewitness accounts said many of the bodies that were removed from under the ruins couldn't be taken to the morgues because they were too badly decomposed, and the paramedics were forced to bury them on the spot in mass graves.

Massive aid needed

Adnan abu Hasna, å spokesman for UNRWA, said the situation in Gaza is disastrous and the destruction is enormous.

"We need great efforts and financial support to rebuild the destroyed buildings and the infrastructure."

However, he said that his organization would continue rescue operations all over the Strip, and that the clinics, medical centers and aid distribution centers would continue to work to their capacity, as they have during the war.

"Today, we are able to reach places we couldn't reach before, despite the enormous losses we sustained due to the fires that hit the UNRWA storage rooms and our headquarters," Abu Hasna said, referring to an Israeli attack against UNRWA headquarters on January 15.

"What worries us most is the devastating psychological situation the Palestinians, and especially the children, went through. It is going to take a concerted effort and thorough treatment in the next few months, especially in the schools, if we want to save a whole generation of children."