A Palestinian woman sits among the debris of destroyed homes in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip, during a 12-hour ceasefire agreed on by Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
Beit Hanoun (Gaza Strip), July 26: Families across the Gaza Strip emerged from shelters and returned to their homes during a 12-hour cease-fire today to survey the damage to their neighbourhoods, collect belongings and help dig bodies from the rubble.
For Akram Qassim, 53, all that remained of the three- story house he had shared with his two brothers and their families was a huge smoking crater strewn with rubble and twisted metal from an Israeli airstrike.
“I expected that maybe a shell had hit it and caused some damage,” Qassim said. “But this is an earthquake.”
In southern Israel, a rocket landed in an open field just as the ceasefire was starting at 8am. The police asked residents to remain off main roads being used to move military equipment around staging areas near Gaza. But residents who have spent much of the last weeks inside bomb shelters ventured cautiously outside, according to Israeli news reports, visiting soldiers in hospitals and helping farmers pick peppers from unprotected fields.
Israel has said its Gaza offensive is necessary to halt rocket fire by Palestinian militants on its cities and towns and to destroy an extensive tunnel network built by Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza. Hamas fighters use the tunnels to sneak fighters and supplies into Israel.
Palestinians see the war as a new case of Israeli aggression and feel that Israel has done little to protect civilians or their property, but Hamas is known to place weapons and fighters in residential neighbourhoods and other places where civilians gather, including mosques.
Four houses close to Qassim’s had also been reduced to piles of rubble; power lines that had been blown from their poles snaked across streets; and the air smelled of a dead horse lying in an empty lot.
“Are all these houses tunnels?” Qassim asked. “Is that dead horse a tunnel?”
Gaza’s health ministry said today that the total Palestinian death toll had exceeded 900, with at least 35 people killed in the 12 hours before the ceasefire began. The majority of Palestinians killed have been civilians.
It also said that the bodies of 20 people killed by Israeli tank fire had been recovered from a single home in central Gaza, at least 18 of them from one family. They had been trapped in their home by shelling since Thursday, the ministry said.
Israel said today that two of its soldiers were killed overnight, bringing the total since the ground invasion began to 37.