JERUSALEM — When Ahmed Abu Hamda left his Gaza City apartment as Israeli tanks rumbled toward his neighborhood, he said a silent prayer and asked Allah to protect his home.
On Friday morning, after word came that Israeli forces had pulled back, Abu Hamda ventured out to see if his prayers had been answered.
He drove by the charred Red Crescent hospital that had been hit by Israeli shells. He walked past a pair of bullet-riddled ambulances that had been used by Israeli forces to barricade the street. He looked up at gaping holes left by Israeli shells in a long line of apartment buildings.
A middle-aged man anxiously rushed by with three women.
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"Move," the man shouted as he left the women behind. "Fast, fast."
It seemed as if every building in the well-off Gaza City neighborhood of Tal Hawwa had been hit by Israeli fire.
When Abu Hamda reached his nine-story apartment building, the McClatchy special correspondent could see that all the windows had been blown out. He could smell acrid smoke in the corridors.
Abu Hamda climbed eight flights of rubble-coated stairs until he reached the apartment he'd carefully prepared for his pregnant wife and the child they're expecting in April.
Abu Hamda took a breath and pushed open the door.
Debris had been blown against the entrance. The windows, including the frames, all had been blasted out. He poked his head through a hole and peered into his bedroom. Everything — including his wife's makeup table and the television — had been blown against the door.
After three weeks of Israeli strikes Gaza City is a ravaged landscape. More than 90,000 of the Gaza Strip's 1.5 million residents — including Abu Hamda and his wife, Suha — have been forced from their homes.
Abu Hamda's apartment had become his sanctuary, and he did the designing.
He had carefully picked out the kitchen tile and proudly showed off the big tub he'd chosen for their bathroom. He worried that the Romanesque columns he designed for the front door might be a bit over-the-top. He fretted over what color to paint the second bedroom, which would be for their first child.
Prices for concrete and paint skyrocketed when Hamas seized military control of Gaza in June 2007 and Israel choked off the normal flow of supplies going into the isolated Mediterranean strip. It became harder and harder to find a refrigerator, stove, television and the other things Abu Hamda hoped would make his wife happy.
Three months later, Abu Hamda put on a suit and joined dozens of friends and relatives at a big wedding hall to celebrate his marriage to Suha, a 28-year-old pharmacist who'd deftly transformed her 38-year-old suitor into an adoring fiance.
It wasn't long before Suha became pregnant for the first time. She lost the child, but in September, Abu Hamda proudly announced that she was pregnant again.
Abu Hamda doted on Suha and made sure she followed doctor's orders to stay off her feet when she began to experience complications.
When Israel began hitting Gaza with airstrikes on Dec. 27, Abu Hamda's neighborhood was an early target. Time and again, Israeli missiles hit nearby government buildings. Over the coming days, he repeatedly rushed his anxious wife to the clinic. He searched in vain for the iron supplements that she'd been taking.
After Israel first sent ground troops into Gaza, Palestinian militants began staking out positions in Abu Hamda's high-rise. The few families that stayed behind demanded that they leave. When the militants refused, Abu Hamda grabbed a few things and moved Suha to her parents' house across town.
His despair began to deepen. Israeli air strikes hit the mosque near his apartment. He worked by candlelight. Fearing for his life, he recited a special Muslim prayer 30 to 40 times a day.
On Sunday, Abu Hamda took his wife for another check-up. A few minutes after they left her parents' house, Suha's mom called in a panic: An Israeli missile slammed into the street outside their home.
"Don't come back," she told her daughter. "They just hit the neighborhood."
Every few days, Abu Hamda would return to his apartment to pick up things for his wife and check on their home. The militants didn't seem to be around when he went by, but he wasn't sure if they were gone for good.
On Thursday, Abu Hamda got word that Israeli tanks were stationed outside his building and soldiers had taken over the high-rise.
When he heard Friday morning that the soldiers had pulled back, he went to see if his apartment had survived.
"I went into the baby's room," Abu Hamda said in a cell phone conversation on Friday. "Nothing." He wept silently on the other end of the phone.
"I bought some baby clothes," he finally said. "I found them in between things, smashed."
Even so, Abu Hamda said he felt lucky.
"My first priority was my wife and the baby," he said. "Thank God we are still alive. Secondly, we still have a house. This is a small disaster for me; it's not a huge disaster."
When the fighting ends, Abu Hamda said he plans to move back and rebuild. Abu Hamda knows he is lucky that his family is alive and that he still has a home to return to when the conflict ends.
"I started from zero and again, I will start from zero," he said. "But it's not a big zero, it's a small zero."
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