Picking up the pieces in Gaza after four weeks of intense conflict

A Palestinian woman walks past buildings destroyed by what police said were Israeli airstrikes and shelling in the town of Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip August 3, 201. Hopes were raised Tuesday for an end to four weeks of fierce fighting aft
A Palestinian woman walks past buildings destroyed by what police said were Israeli airstrikes and shelling in the town of Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip August 3, 201. Hopes were raised Tuesday for an end to four weeks of fierce fighting after both Israel and Hamas agreed on the terms of a 72-hour truce. PHOTO: REUTERS 
Israeli bomb disposal experts inspect the damage at a house following a rocket attack by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip outside a house in the southern Israeli city of Kfar Aza, on July 14, 2014. PHOTO: AFP
A picture taken on August 4, 2014 shows an empty playground in the southern Israeli kibbutz of Kfar Aza. Most residents have fled Kfar Aza, afraid of tunnels used by Palestinian militants for cross-border attacks. PHOTO:AFP
A relative reacts at a badly damaged house, which witnesses said was hit by an Israeli air strike, in the Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip August 3, 2014.  PHOTO: REUTERS

A 72-hour truce came into effect Tuesday after four weeks of intense fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants led by the Islamist group, Hamas. Israel has withdrawn all ground forces from Gaza, raising hopes of an end to the fighting which left 1,800 Palestinians and 67 Israelis dead. It's now left to the people on both sides to pick up the pieces.

THE PALESTINIANS - Glass and debris littered the road to Ahed Marouf's house in a northern Gaza town on Monday as he rode on a donkey cart with his wife and three children to check on their home during a seven-hour truce declared by Israel.

What they saw when they reached Beit Lahiya, near the Israeli border, persuaded them to return to their temporary shelter in a UN-run school in nearby Jabalya refugee camp.

"It did not feel safe," said Marouf, a 30-year-old farmer. "At our house, windows were shattered. There is no electricity and no water."

Along with thousands of other residents, Marouf and his family fled Beit Lahiya - at Israel's urging - during fierce battles last week between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants.

Israel attacked from the air and ground while militants fired dozens of mortar bombs. Israel said the brief truce was intended to allow some of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by an almost four-week-old war to go home. The Islamist group Hamas, which dominates Gaza, said the one-sided truce was an Israeli media stunt.

On the main road leading to Beit Lahiya, a cluster of high-rise apartment buildings that had housed hundreds of low-income families looked as if it had been peppered by tank fire, seemingly damaged beyond repair.

"Only a permanent ceasefire involving both sides would persuade us to go home to stay. For now, we remain in the UN school," said Marouf's wife, Mervat, 23.

She said the war had gone on too long and complained she could not treat her children for flu and stomach pains at local hospitals because they have been overwhelmed by wounded from Israeli bombardments. In

Gaza City, dozens of people lined up outside banks and automatic teller machines to withdraw cash. Others packed into grocery stores during the ceasefire, which Palestinians accused Israel of violating in a bomb attack they said killed an eight-year-old girl and wounded 29 other people in a Gaza refugee camp.

"Destruction is all over Gaza," Mervat Marouf said. "We come in sadness. We go in sadness."

THE ISRAELIS - Kfar Aza, a kibbutz on the frontline of cross-border tunnels which Israel vowed to destroy, was emptied of all its children during Israel's war on Hamas militants in Gaza.

Its 250 children were evacuated along with many families, leaving behind a few dozen adults in the collective farming village which usually boasts a population of 750 inhabitants. Homes were shuttered, playgrounds left empty and silent, with the only noise coming from Israeli bombardment of Gaza and rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled Palestinian territory.

"We were used to rockets and shells, but these tunnels, from which terrorists can emerge, really frighten us," said kibbutz spokesman Noam Stahl. During a walk in the empty streets, Stahl pointed out the damage caused by 12 mortar rounds that struck his community, including one which hit a reinforced wall around the local kindergarten.

"We demand that the government protect us. We are very disappointed that after so many years Israel has not found a solution," said Stahl.

Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8 to counter militant rocket fire from Gaza and expanded it 10 days later with a ground assault to destroy a sophisticated network of the so-called "terror tunnels".

On Tuesday, the Israeli army completed a withdrawal from Gaza as a 72-hour humanitarian truce went into effect following intense global pressure to end a conflict which killed more than 18,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 67 people on Israel's side, almost all soldiers.

The military said the previous day that it had destroyed all the known tunnels in Gaza, which Kfar Aza residents view as a "threat" to their very existence. The tunnels have been used by Palestinian militants to smuggle men and weapons and to infiltrate southern Israel on the fringes of Gaza to carry out attacks.

One diehard local who refused to leave his home during the four-week conflict was 77-year-old Israel Degany, a founder of Kfar Azar and resident of 57 years.

"This is my house and I have no intention to leave but I am afraid for the children. How can parents live with such a danger that can rise from the earth at any time," he said.

Doudi Doron, another longtime resident, remains pessimistic about the future, saying that he was realistic about the ceasefire.

"I would like this to be the last military operation but I don't believe it will be," he said.


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