Monday, January 19, 2009

Gaza City: a scene of destruction as ceasefire signals end of Israeli offensive

The elderly Palestinian man mouthed some words but nothing came out.


The sight yesterday of what had once been a four-storey family home in the Gazan town of Beit Lahiya shocked Mustapha Saqar, 59, into speechlessness.

Every room was gutted, the fa├žade was perforated with blast holes and the only things he had been able to salvage were a bedside table and a soggy mattress.

It was a scene played out repeatedly across the Gaza Strip as thousands of Palestinians used the ceasefire to emerge gingerly from the shelters where they had hidden for three weeks to find what remained of their homes.

In the Beit Lahiya district of Itwaam they had to leave their cars behind and walk through sandy ground churned up by the tracks of Israeli Merkava battle tanks.

Some of the more enterprising brought donkeys hauling carts over the deeply-rutted ground to recover what they could from destroyed homes.

"I have been to the house of my brother and this is all what was left," Auni Najar, 44, said pointing at a cart of blankets and curtains sodden with rain.

"He has no home now so he has come with his wife and nine children to live in my house, a house that I already share with my wife and three children.

"I don't know how we are going to survive." Among civilian families like the Saqars there was a terrible sense of helplessness and anger at both the Israeli armed forces and the militant fighters who had robbed them of a home.

"I don't know why the Israelis came here," Khadija Saqar, 57, said.

"Maybe there were some people firing rockets from here but they were not my people.

"All I know is that I no longer have a home." The Saqar home's position on the top of a sandy rise with views west to the Mediterranean meant it had been selected by Israeli troops as a suitable place for a base.

On the ground floor the troops had left stacks of uneaten pitta bread, wrappers from high-energy bars bearing Hebrew script and chewing gum not available in the shops of Gaza.

They had also punched a hole in the back wall to use as an emergency exit.

Getting into the Gaza Strip yesterday meant crossing a no-man's land on the fringe of the territory from where all local Palestinians had fled.

The first group of journalists allowed by Israel through the Erez crossing since the start of operation Cast Lead had only feral dogs, white donkeys and an Israeli tank for company as they trudged along the war-damaged road.

After reaching the relative safety of the built-up areas in northern Gaza the scale of Israel's assault on the infrastructure of the Gaza Strip became apparent.

There were bomb craters in road junctions flooded with foul-smelling water from broken sewage pipes, minarets perforated by shell blasts and great drifts of rubble across main thoroughfares bestrewed with fallen power cables.

At one site the blast had been so strong a tree had had all its leaves blown off leaving nothing but a skeleton.

The lack of electricity had plunged Gaza City back into the Dark Ages and young men gathering fire wood could be seen walking the tatty streets.

As night fell fires were being lit on pavements and pots of food were being heated.

Without street lighting the city had a post-apocalyptic air as shadowy figures emerged from among piles of collapsed masonry and puddles shattered glass spread across on the streets twinkled momentarily in the headlights of the occasional car.

Before darkness fell it was possible to get a sense of how Gaza City has become a city of monumental destruction.

The parliament building had been bombed repeatedly and its concrete floors teetered dangerously on partially-collapsed walls like an unconvincing house of cards.

The seraya compound had once been a proud possession of Hamas, a place where they showed how well they treated inmates in prison, had been blown to smithereens.

The foreign minister's office was simply gone. It had vanished in repeated strikes by laser-guided bombs.

The accuracy of the Israeli airstrikes might have been impressive but the targets chosen by the Israeli planners left some Gazans bemused.

Amani Kurdi, a 19-year-old girl first-year science student at the Islamic University giggled in disbelief at the claim made by Israel the university's science department was a site used to design rockets fired at Israel.

"I am shaking,'' she said as she looked through the gate at the six- storey building that used to house the science department where she studied.

Only the stair well remained upright like a chimney stack of doorways towering over the rubble of destroyed laboratories.

"I had heard that my department had been hit but we had no power in our house so I could not see any pictures on the TV and I wanted to come today and see with my own eyes.

"The laboratories were open 24 hours a day to all students and they were not secret places where rockets were designed.

"All I can think is that the Israelis don't want us to have an education and so they destroy this university simply because it has the name 'Islamic'.

"I don't know what sort of future I have now – only God knows my future after this.''

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