Gazans confront scenes of devastation and loss

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 19, 2009 

BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip — Israel continued to pull its troops out of Gaza on Monday as thousands of Palestinians confronted the wreckage the soldiers left behind: shattered lives, whole neighborhoods under rubble and an ever-rising death toll.

Israeli news media reported that Israel would withdraw all its troops before Barack Obama was sworn in as U.S. president on Tuesday. However, the first full day of a cease-fire was no consolation to Gazans still tallying their losses, such as the Soboh family, who buried a girl just 20 days old.

Baby Mariam caught a severe cold hours after she was born, when Israeli soldiers advanced on their village in northern Gaza and her family was forced to flee into the chilly night. Nearly a week passed before it was safe enough for her parents to take her to a doctor, but by then, her father said, it was too late.

She died Monday morning, and perhaps the only blessing of her short life was that she died on a day when it was safe for her family to leave an emergency shelter to lay her to rest.

At a modest ceremony in a simple graveyard, Bilal Soboh kissed his newborn daughter one final time before she was lowered onto the soft earth. A neighbor placed the tiny body, wrapped in a thin cotton shroud, between some cinder blocks and covered it with a sheet of metal, the crudest of funeral chambers.

Mariam's grandfather, Mohammed Soboh, found his home destroyed in Beit Lahiya, which was the scene of some of the fiercest clashes of the war. A poor farmer supporting a family of 15, Soboh quietly acknowledged the simplicity of the baby's funeral.

"We cannot afford a proper cover for the coffin," he said. "We didn't even pay for the cinder blocks."

In Gaza City, seemingly every outpost of the Hamas-led government — the parliament building, the Justice Department, police stations and even firehouses — lay in heaps, with giant concrete slabs teetering at improbable angles. In other places the damage appeared random: middle-class apartment blocks sprayed by artillery fire, and roads, a soccer field and a popular park chewed up by tanks.

Some of the worst damage was in residential areas where Israeli ground forces apparently had done battle with Palestinian militants.

In the Tawam neighborhood, atop a hill with a view of the Mediterranean, a working-class enclave the size of a city block was reduced to a field of debris, the tracks of Israeli Merkava tanks still fresh in the dirt.

Families picked through the wreckage of homes with their bare hands, retrieving shreds of clothing and scraps of twisted metal as broken glass crunched underfoot. Children collected bullet casings outside the charred husk of one home where residents said militants had set up shop last week.

"I have nothing left. Everything is broken," said Imad Wadi, 36, as he loaded a horse-drawn cart with the remnants of his home: splintered wooden beams, a mangled kitchen pot, a thick strip of rug.

He motioned toward a building where he said emergency workers had pulled an old woman's body from the rubble that morning. "The Israelis had no mercy," he said. "They destroyed everything in their way."

Crews retrieved 12 bodies from collapsed buildings, Palestinian medical officials said, adding to a death toll that's already topped 1,300, two-fifths of them women and children. At the cemetery in Beit Lahiya a handful of families dug fresh graves alongside baby Mariam's.

Israel has denied targeting civilians and said that Hamas fighters were operating from residential areas.

With some 4,000 homes destroyed, Palestinian officials estimated the cost of rebuilding Gaza at $1.5 billion.

The day wasn't entirely quiet, as two Israeli fighter jets buzzed Gaza City and Israeli warships sporadically shelled a beach-side area around midmorning. Military officials didn't respond to requests to explain the incidents.

In much of Gaza City, however, life appeared to be returning to normal, as lines formed outside banks and supermarkets and pharmacies reopened for the first time since the war began.

Israeli officials have said that their military campaign decimated Hamas, but the militant Islamic group tried to appear resilient, deploying armed police officers on the streets and civilian officials to take stock of the wreckage.

Surveying the damage in their neighborhoods, residents expressed outrage at Israel's aggression, but some also voiced frustration at Hamas. For all the group's defiant rhetoric, several people asked, what did its resistance campaign achieve?

"Where is the victory Hamas was talking about? Show us the victory," wailed Maha al Sultan, clasping a tissue to her nose. "We are the only ones dead and destroyed. Where are the burned Israeli tanks and dead soldiers?"

The 36-year-old mother of four was standing outside her family's home in Tawam, where some 55 relatives lived in six apartments. An Israeli strike had collapsed the concrete roof like a chute and it hung nearly at a 90-degree angle, looking as if it would fall at any minute.

The family would spend this night, and probably many cold nights to come, at a U.N. shelter, she said. She bitterly wondered how Hamas' belligerent leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal, would explain that to her.

"Where is Khaled Mashaal? He's living in Syria in a big castle," she said. "Let him see our destroyed homes."

Nearby, Khadija Saqer, 55, sat on the crumbling stoop of her family's decimated three-story house. The ground was strewn with bits of a ceramic teapot and a cracked plastic bed frame, signs of the middle-class life they'd built in the house over the past five years.

The final humiliation, she said, was evidence that Israeli soldiers had camped upstairs: opened cans of beef and a few missing packs of Marlboros.

"There was no resistance," Saqer said. "It's the job of the resistance to protect my land."

She soon directed her anger back at Israel, however, suggesting that the military campaign had only fueled Palestinians' resentment.

"My sons are not Hamas," she said. "But I wish they were."

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