You knew something was happening this morning in Gaza when you could hear birds sing. The whole Gaza Strip was bathing in the silence of a humanitarian ceasefire suggested by a United Nations representative and accepted by both Israel and Hamas.
For five splendid hours on Thursday, the streets filled with people, many of whom had scarcely ventured outside their homes for 10 days, fearful of Israeli missiles and shells. But between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., there was no shelling to be heard and no rockets being launched against Israel, some of which are deafening when they take off.
Besides the birds, you heard the sound of children playing and the honking of car horns as the streets filled with traffic.
Vehicles were forced to come to a complete halt in front of many of the strip’s banks as massive lineups were formed for access to one or two bank machines.
The banks were opened for the first time in almost two weeks, and the scene resembled what runs on banks in the 1920s looked like, as people withdrew as much as they could in case the banks don’t open again for a while.
Even uniformed policemen were out and about. Since Israel considers any Palestinian with a gun and a uniform an enemy fighter, police have often been targeted by Israel in the past. This day they were free to roam and to direct traffic at some of the busier intersections.
By 11 a.m., you could barely move in the central market area of Khan Yunis, a particularly religious Palestinian city about 18 kilometres south of Gaza.
Women in black niqabs and abayas lugged large plastic bags full of food, while men in white sat on the walkway reading the Koran. “It’s a Ramadan obligation,” one explained.
Grocer Mohammed abu Fawzy seemed a happy man. “I’ve been open the past 10 days but had no customers,” he said. “But today …” he started to say, as he pointed to the long lineup forming to his check-out counter.
“No I’m not really happy,” he said. “This war is terrible and five hours is nothing compared to the women and children killed.”
He looked at me with a penetrating gaze, wondering if I had a point of view. “The West thinks we are all terrorists,” he finally stated. “But we’re not. We just want our rights as a people, as a country.”
To most Gazans, whatever their politics, this is a familiar refrain. They’re hoping that ceasefire talks now quietly underway in Cairo will end the conflict and give them some relief from the siege-like conditions imposed by Israel – and lately by Egypt – that restrict their movement and their trade outside the territory.
But for five glorious hours, even the stiffly conservative folks of Khan Yunis enjoyed themselves.
Salim al Dayuk and his daughter Amira, 12, were busy making small (eight-centimetre) pancakes that go into a Ramadan sweet called katayef. Folded over and stuffed with ground nuts, spice and sugar, they’re a favourite of the Muslim holy month.
“We’ve hardly sold anything this Ramadan,” Mr. al Dayuk said. “It’s been a sombre month.”
“It’s wonderful that the rockets from both sides have stopped,” he said. “My children have been very frightened.”
Not long after the five hours were up, however, some major rockets – probably Iranian-made Fajr-5s or home-made R-160s – were once again roaring toward Israel. And Israel was returning fire, first from ships shelling from offshore, then from the air.
One of those attacks has just claimed the lives of three children in the East of Gaza City as they were killed unintentionally by an Israeli jet trying to warn a household of people to evacuate their house quickly as it was about to be bombed.
The so-called “knock on the door” warning is given by firing a small rocket on the roof of a house. This time, however, the three children happened to be playing on the roof when the knock came. The incident comes a day after an Israeli shell accidentally killed four kids on the beach in Gaza.
WEDNESDAY: A HARD WELCOME IN GAZA
“Welcome back to hell,” Hasan Jabber, a local Palestinian reporter, said on Wednesday as he described his eight-kilometre daily commute from the Bureij refugee camp to downtown Gaza as “a white knuckle ride.”
We had just sat down to talk when a massive boom shook my chair at the waterfront café of a modest hotel.
About 300 metres to south, at the city’s fishing port, a shell had exploded and a ball of black smoke rose into the air. It wasn’t clear whether the shell had come from an Israeli ship offshore, a jet or a drone overhead.
I remember thinking it’s a good thing no fishermen were allowed out at sea during the current conflict and the port was bound to be deserted.
But because it was deserted of fishermen, it was a perfect place to play a game of soccer in the sand at the water’s edge. Four boys from the nearby Beach refugee camp – aged 9 to 11, all cousins – were killed by the blast.
A number of badly injured children were brought to my hotel and cared for by staff until ambulances arrived. All were reported to have survived, including the young boy with a piece of shrapnel stuck in his chest.
Such bombs and blasts are an everyday occurrence in Gaza and keep most people off the streets. On the drive in from the Israeli border on Wednesday, I commented to my interpreter – an earnest young woman named Jihad (what else?), dressed in hijab and full-length robe – how empty the streets were.
“You should have seen them yesterday [Tuesday],” she said. “It was so nice to see some people out again and some of the shops open.”
Tuesday, of course, was the day Israel observed a ceasefire for six hours and the blasts showered on Gaza were silenced. The attempt at a mutual truce failed, however, as Hamas kept on firing its rockets into Israel, one of which caused the first Israeli fatality of this war. And now the bombs are back with a vengeance.
The first stop on my tour of Gaza City was at the site of another enormous blast earlier in the day – the home of Mahmoud Zahar, a surgeon and one of the more extreme leaders of Hamas.
The Israeli Air Force apparently performed a surgical procedure of its own in the early morning hours, destroying much of the four-storey house with one missile that appeared to enter on the floor right above the front door. And it did so without seriously injuring, let alone killing, anyone.
Dr. Zahar was not at home at the time, of course. Nor were any members of his family or staff. He’s somewhere deep underground in Gaza, possibly below a major hospital along with other Hamas leaders, safe from the bombs. His neighbours suffered only relatively minor damage to windows and doors, which were blown right out by the power of the blast.
The fourth floor of the Zahar home appears largely intact, though it looks as if it’s being held up by a number of stilts, all that remains of some parts of the lower floors.
Neighbours, cleaning up their broken glass and stepping gingerly over the Zahar rubble in the middle of the street, wondered if the Israelis would be back again to finish the job.
Because of the threat of Israeli bombardment – and because the Israelis have been sending out warning notices to some neighbourhoods of impending attacks – there are close to 20,000 Gazans who have sought refuge with relatives in safer districts or in United Nations schools.
The Fakhoura School is one of them, offering temporary housing to about 1,200 people who arrived last week after receiving an Israeli warning. That works out to about 30 people in each of the school’s 40 classrooms – a pretty tight fit when you consider everyone has to find room to sleep there.
Most of the people walked here or rode in donkey-pulled carts from Beit Lahia, a few kilometres to the north, and the only cooking equipment or bedding they have is what they brought with them.
The smell of urine is heavy when you walk through the steel gates of the blue-and-white compound. The two- and three-storey buildings are set up around a central square, and lots of people must be ducking around the back of some of the buildings to relieve themselves. There are worse smells at the back of the biggest building where feces and bad food have been left, now covered in flies. Jihad, my interpreter, covers her nose and mouth the entire time we’re in the compound.
The master of the school seems understandably overwrought. I’m ushered in to see him in his large chaotic office because no one is allowed inside the facility without his permission. When I ask how many people are being sheltered in the school, he tells me to speak to someone at the headquarters of the UN Relieve and Works Agency. Only they can answer such questions.
The same went for every other question I asked, except one: Could I walk around the school and talk to the people? “Absolutely,” he said. “Feel free.”
People complained about the lack of privacy – rooms are divided by hanging blankets and piles of desks – about the lack of mattresses and about the poor food they’re provided.
On Tuesday, it was pita bread and lentils. Wednesday, it’s pita and a tin of tuna. Those families with money buy what they need from local grocers, but it’s clear there are many who don’t have the cash.
When it came time to distribute the UNRWA food, a patrol of clean-cut Boy Scouts, around 16 years of age, marched into the compound dressed smartly in khaki shirts and purple neckerchiefs with the white fleur-de-lys Scout emblem. They were volunteers from Jabalia and organized themselves in front of the distribution doors so as to make sure people stayed in line and there was no pushing or shoving.
To help people just like these, Israel announced Wednesday that it would facilitate a five-hour humanitarian truce on Thursday to allow people who fled their homes to return to them to pick up supplies. During these hours, Israel said it cease all operational activity in Gaza and hold its fire.
Heading toward the exit, we were overwhelmed by the jet-like sound of two rockets being launched from somewhere near the school. Hamas, or some or militant group, clearly is hoping the Israelis won’t strike at the launchers, which are kept underground until the moment of firing, because they’re close to the school and so many refugees.
As the Hamas-made missiles screamed off into the sky, leaving a white vapour trail, the kids all cheered. One older boy of maybe 12, shouted in Arabic “They’re R160s,” named for the late Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi who was assassinated by Israel in 2004. These are the big, long-range rockets usually reserved for Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or the airport in between.
The Girls Prep School in Gaza City is another makeshift UN centre for displaced Gazans. The people here have arrived only in the past two days and appear to have been more or less dumped in the place.
There was no sense of order here – certainly no school master or UN officials to be seen – and certainly no neat Boy Scouts as there were at the Fakhoura School, another shelter I visited.
Rather, the scene encountered on walking through the steel gates was one of young boys – aged 10 to 12 – fighting. Seriously fighting. And I noticed a number of young men walking about carrying wooden sticks.
When I approached one of the older men to ask where he and other people came from, I barely got the words out of my mouth before I was swarmed by a large group, made up mostly of women and children.
It happened often in Gaza on Wednesday that groups would gather around whenever my interpreter and I stopped to talk to people. They were often just curious and had little else to do.
Some were simply annoying, repeatedly asking, “What’s your name?” – the only sentence in English they knew. Others wanted to hear word of “the situation” and when this journalist thought the conflict will be over.
But the group at Girls Prep were different. They were menacing.
It was clear they thought I was some kind of UN official who finally was going to talk to them or bring them some provisions; some held their hands to us, palms up, demanding money.
Some 50 per cent of Gaza’s population is unemployed or unpaid; half of its 1.8 million people are on United Nations food aid.
I would happily have gone off with some of the displaced Gazans at the Girls Prep School to inspect the facilities about which they complained, but as I began to suggest that, I found that some of the boys were trying to unzip my backpack slung over one shoulder, while others were reaching into my pockets.
“It’s time to go,” I announced loudly and looked around for Jihad, my interpreter. She too was fending off a mob. I pushed my way toward her, and Mahmoud, our tall strong driver, came toward her from the other side. Together, and with great effort, we made our way through the steel gate to where our car was parked.
Even there, kids jostled the car and reached through the open windows to try to grab things, until we rolled up the windows and drove off.
The people of Gaza are becoming desperate.