Ceasefire a chance to see damage and buy supplies

The streets filled as people stocked up. But then explosions started up again

The father  of two boys from the Shaibar family is overcome with grief – medics said his sons were killed along with a girl from the same extended family by an Israeli air strike yesterday. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly

The father of two boys from the Shaibar family is overcome with grief – medics said his sons were killed along with a girl from the same extended family by an Israeli air strike yesterday. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly

Fri, Jul 18, 2014, 12:51

The temporary ceasefire has been in place for less than an hour, but already Omar Mukhtar Street is a cacophony of car horns and the bustle of mid-morning trade at Gaza City’s central market. The five-hour humanitarian window, during which Israel and Hamas agreed to a UN request for a cessation, brought many people out of their homes for the first time in a week, transforming the ghostly streets of recent days to scenes verging on normality.

“We got bored at home,” says Ayman, who has opened his men’s clothes shop at the entrance to Zawiya market for the first time in 10 days even though he doesn’t expect to do any business.

“We’re not selling anything,” he says, pointing to the huge stock of jeans and shirts he imported from Turkey in the hope of a busy Eid celebration. “People are only buying food and drink, but we opened so we could be outside and see people.” Not that the business thrives at the best of times, Ayman adds with a smile. “People don’t have any money to spend – even without a war.”

The Irish Times' Ruadhán Mac Cormaic in Gaza

It was a temporary respite, but on the streets of Gaza, those five hours felt like the city finally had a chance to breathe for the first time in 10 days. Buzzing drones could be heard overhead, but otherwise the sky was reassuringly quiet and the tension and fear that hung over the city on Wednesday had lifted.

People ventured out for the first time, stocking up on food and catching up with friends. Yesterday was the first day in several weeks that Gaza’s banks and ATMs were open, so more than 150 people queued at several banks to receive their salaries or withdraw much-needed cash for supplies.

In the queue outside the Bank of Palestine, Mohammad, a municipal employee, says he hasn’t been paid in 16 days on account of the war and a separate dispute between Hamas and Fatah over the payment of salaries. Like many others, he has been buying essentials on credit to get by.

Stocking up

In the market, the stalls are brimming with newly arrived stock. Most people make straight for the food sellers. At a fruit stand, 66-year-old Aisha Totah is filling a bag of mangos to bring home to her family of seven.

“Circumstances are very hard,” she says, pushing her white headscarf further down to shield herself from the baking sun. “I haven’t bought any food since the beginning of Ramadan.”

Aisha speaks evenly, but the more we talk, the more animated she becomes. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, who has in effect closed the Gaza border crossing at Rafah, is “an American agent”. She mocks him for having proposed a ceasefire without discussing it with Hamas. But her fiercest criticism is reserved for Israel. “They are killing us all over Gaza – everywhere. We will not give up. We will not disarm. How could we defend ourselves without any arms?” she asks, her voice rising.

For some the lull is a respite; for others merely an opportunity to see for themselves the extent of the destruction. At 5am yesterday, Maher Dabbagh heard a huge bang on the roof of his family’s two-storey home near the seafront. It shook the house, knocking the clocks and pictures off the walls.

Five-minute warning

Recognising it immediately as an Israeli “knock on the roof” warning, he gathered the children and the family ran for it. They were just around the block when, about five minutes later, a bomb landed on open ground adjacent to their house with such ferocity that it rocked the neighbourhood.

“It felt like an earthquake,” he recalls. The explosion tore huge cracks along the walls of his house, but his family all survived.

Mistaken as launch site

As he surveys the scene, where the charred bomb sits at the base of a 10-foot crater, Dabbagh says he never thought his house was in danger. He presumes the Israelis believed rockets were being launched from the site, “but I never heard a rocket go from here”, he says.

As 3pm – and the end of the ceasefire – approaches, Gaza begins to empty. Shop shutters are brought down, the crowds on the street begin to thin out and the roads – choked with cars just a few hours earlier – are virtually clear again. The city has hunkered down, and a haunting quiet is restored.

It’s broken by the sound of rocket fire and the familiar, guttural boom of an explosion not far away.