In the wake of a unilateral truce declared by Israel, Gazans have emerged on the devastated streets of their towns to survey the damage and collect the dead. Nearly 100 bodies of Palestinians were pulled from the rubble on Sunday.
REUTERS - After 22 days of devastating Israeli air strikes and shelling, shocked Palestinians emerged onto the rubble-strewn streets of the Gaza Strip on Sunday to collect their dead and inspect their shattered homes.
Women sat weeping amid the ruins of their houses, hiding their faces, many too distressed to speak. Others sifted through the debris to gather cherished belongings in plastic bags.
One held a necklace. "This is all that's left," she said.
Children tried to salvage school bags and torn notebooks.
After a unilateral Israeli ceasefire took effect at 2 a.m. (0000 GMT), the bombing stopped, although limited clashes between Israeli forces and Hamas militants continued.
Families who had fled advancing Israeli troops began returning to barely recognisable neighbourhoods to discover who had survived and who had died. "Thank God you are alive! The house can be rebuilt, God willing," one man consoled a friend.
Hamas, eager to show it still controls Gaza despite the Israeli onslaught, sent policemen back onto the streets -- even the traffic cops were out on mangled, cratered roads.
Municipal bulldozers pushed aside crushed cars and fallen chunks of concrete from the streets, but nothing could conceal the scale of destruction wrought by Israel's military machine.
"Some people can't even recognise the place where their house used to be," one policeman radioed to his commander from the northern town of Beit Lahiya.
Ambulances negotiated roads torn up by bombs and tank tracks to recover bodies that had lain for days in rubble in Beit Lahiya and open areas to the north. Hamas police said about 95 bodies, mostly of militants, had been found so far, including at least 20 believed to be those of fighters killed in combat.
The Palestinian death toll published by medics from the Hamas-run Health Ministry stood at 1,300, among them at least 410 children. Another 5,300 people have been wounded.
Fearing renewed Israeli strikes, the police chief in the northern Gaza Strip ordered his men to move only in very small groups and to guard police headquarters and public buildings, not going inside them unless absolutely necessary.
"Be careful," one officer told policemen. "This is not a real calm."
Israeli strikes killed scores of policemen on the first day of the war. Israel classes Gaza's police as combatants, although some lawyers say they should be regarded as civilians.
Sereya, an old woman dressed in black robes, wandered among the ruins of the housing compound where she had lived.
"What should I say? Should I speak of my house that was destroyed or of my land that was bulldozed?" she lamented, struggling with tears. "I got out with only what I'm wearing."
Israeli soldiers have told Reuters reporters of going in with overwhelming force and, in at least one case, of bulldozing a house to kill a suspected guerrilla fighter inside.
International humanitarian law experts say troops are obliged not only to do all they can to avoid harming civilians but also to avoid destroying civilian property.
Israel has rejected suggestions that it may have committed war crimes, though a number of international bodies, including the United Nations' refugee agency in Gaza, urged investigations after the deaths of children and other civilians.
As rescue workers pulled more bodies out of wrecked buildings, residents looked on in sorrow and disbelief.
One woman recognised the remains of her husband.
"He was a fighter," she said, holding an infant. "We did not know he had been killed ... This child has become an orphan."
The man's mother prayed for vengeance. "May God punish Israel and punish America," she said. "They killed my son."
Date created : 2009-01-18