Gaza’s agreed three-day ceasefire lasted only 90 minutes but for one Palestinian woman that was time enough to return to the street where she lives and find her home was a pile of rubble.
“Oh God, oh God!” she cried, breaking down in tears at the site of her family’s two houses. The buildings were once home to 75 people, testament to Gaza’s crushing population density.
“My house was flattened and so was the house of my children,” said the veiled woman, who did not want to give her name. She said she had lost a son in Israeli shelling of Shejaia, an eastern district of Gaza where more than 70 people have been killed during three weeks of hostilities.
In other districts, returning Gaza residents found decomposing bodies under the wreckage of their homes.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians like her emerged from shelters at schools run by the United Nations and from the houses of relatives and friends to visit homes they had been forced to leave as Israeli forces targeted Gaza militants.
Many hoped the ceasefire agreed by Israel and Palestinian factions would turn into durable calm as both sides were ready to hold talks in Cairo in an attempt to end fighting that has killed 1,500 Palestinians and more than 60 Israeli soldiers.
For some, home was anything but sweet.
Last week, Nedal Abu Rjaila and his family had to run for cover as their houses came under fire from Israeli tanks in the town of Khuzaa in the southern Gaza Strip. Their sister, who is in a wheelchair, did not escape.
Abu Rjaila said one of his brothers was pushing the 17-year-old girl’s wheelchair when he was wounded and ran to seek help.
At 8 a.m. on Friday, when the ceasefire started, the brother ran towards where his sister lay, to find that she had been hit by a tank shell and her body had started to decompose.
The brother collapsed, lay on the ground next to his sister and refused to allow medics to remove her body.
“I need no ambulance, I am waiting for my mother to come and see her. This is a handicapped child, what crime did she commit to be hit by a shell?” he said to Reuters.
Reduced to rubble
Khuzaa, once an area of greenery and attractive villas, had been largely reduced to rubble. Rescue workers recovered 10 more decaying bodies, and dozens of houses had been flattened.
As the ceasefire began, people filled the streets of the narrow coastal territory, many walking back to their homes, while others used donkey carts or hitched rides on trucks.
Many hoped they would be able to leave the refuges where the United Nations is sheltering more than 225,000 people.
Zeyad Al-Sultan, 39, from the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, said he did not feel safe at a shelter set up in a school by the United Nations and he hoped a durable ceaseifre could be agreed.
“The U.N. shelter is like a prison, you have to share the bathroom with 2,000 people, it is too noisy and there is no privacy for women or for anyone,” he told Reuters as he waited for a car to take him and his five-member family back home.
But Sultan, like many in the refuge, said they were cautious about what lay in store for them. “We are going back to Beit Lahiya but we close one eye and open the other to see whether tanks will come back,” said Sultan.
His caution was not misplaced.
People from the Shejaia neighbourhood said they were fired on by Israeli tanks, forcing them to return to the shelters and temporary lodgings they had just left.
In other areas, people left their homes again after news that the truce had collapsed. Some had hurriedly managed to retrieve clothes and blankets from their homes, and many bought food and water to take back to the shelters.
In Gaza City, streets that had filled soon after the truce came into force were empty again a few hours later as hopes for lasting quiet faded.