‘No one achieved anything but destruction’ in Gaza city

Gazans hunker down in devastated city despite ceasefire

The funeral at the Saint Porfirios church in Gaza City yesterday of Palestinian Christian woman Jalila Faraj Ayyad, whom medics said was killed in an Israeli air strike. Photograph: Suhaib Salem/Reuters

The funeral at the Saint Porfirios church in Gaza City yesterday of Palestinian Christian woman Jalila Faraj Ayyad, whom medics said was killed in an Israeli air strike. Photograph: Suhaib Salem/Reuters

Mon, Jul 28, 2014, 01:00

Mohammed Al-Zadeem sits in the afternoon shade outside his uncle’s house in central Gaza city, watching a rare scene: people are walking past, car horns fill the air and the city seems to be settling into some of its old rhythms.

Mohammed considers himself one of the luckier ones. The 29-year-old fled his home in Shejaia, an eastern district that has been largely destroyed in the past week, but when he took advantage of the weekend’s on-off ceasefires to survey the destruction, he found that while nearly all his neighbours’ houses had been levelled, his was still standing.

The house was in the heart of the fighting zone; he can only guess that its elevated perch made it worth keeping. “I was shocked,” he says, describing his first visit back to his home. “Shejaia is not Shejaia any more. It was like an earthquake that hit all the houses.”

For his friend Shadi Qdada, whose days now consist of sitting at home, watching television for updates as the conflict rages all around him, there is nothing but impatience for it all to end. “No one achieved anything but destruction – on both sides,” he says.

The conflict came closest to home for him when, one day last week, he called a friend only for the friend’s house to be shelled during the conversation. “We’ve got used to living like this,” he adds despondently. “We have wars, we have ordinary life.”

Truces collapse

The weekend may have brought relative quiet, but few seemed prepared to believe that the conflict was at an end. Their scepticism was justified: truces that were to last 24 hours collapsed in acrimony, Israel and Hamas blaming the other.

On the streets of Gaza city there was confusion and stress, the somewhat busier streets masking the truth that most people were still hunkered down at home. Mohammed knows the war will have to end, the question is when. “There will be a ceasefire,” he says. “Every war has an end.”

While city life could tentatively resume in parts of Gaza city at the weekend, others places were deserted. In the north of Gaza, near the border with Israel, there was complete devastation. On a 15-minute drive from the border to Gaza city, a few donkeys were the only sign of life. The roads were cratered, houses were razed and the smell was of burning and rotting rubbish.

In the phone shop he runs in the city, Mazen Kuhail has opened the doors for the first time in three weeks just to have an excuse to leave the house. “I felt so bored. I had to get out,” he says. A few people have come in to top up the credit on their phones, but he’s not doing much business today.

“Psychologically, people are not comfortable,” he says of the strange atmosphere on the streets. But while he yearns for an end to the conflict, he only wants it on the terms set down by Hamas – a lifting of the siege of Gaza and the release of prisoners. “They will hold on. They will bear everything until they get their demands,” he said.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency reported yesterday that the number of displaced in Gaza had risen to 167,000 – about one tenth of the population of the strip. Many of them are being housed in UN schools that have been converted into shelters, where groups of up to 40 people sleep in single classrooms and are provided with food, water and mattresses.

Warning call

Among them is Nfooz Al Shawish, a middle-aged woman who fled her home in Shejaia after she received an automated phone call from the Israel Defence Forces in the early days of the bombardment, warning her to leave. As we speak, she is hurrying back to the shelter with some meat and rice that friends have given her. “I cried,” she says of her first look at battered Shejaia at the weekend. “Nobody could tell where their houses were.”

Nfooz says conditions at her shelter are “alright” but she has no mattress to sleep on and has to use her handbag as a pillow. Her biggest concern is for her husband, an older man whose kidney problems require regular hospital visits – difficult in current circumstances – and who has started to show signs of acute stress during the bombardment.

Will there be a lasting ceasefire? “I hope so,” she responds. “The two sides have got to talk because of all the children being killed . . . It’s the longest war. It’s too much.”

It was believed that both sides were keen to agree a ceasefire in time for the feast of Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan and falls today. But even if there were a lull, few seem minded to celebrate. “We haven’t been able to buy anything,” Nfooz says. “There’s no Eid. People are visiting each other to offer condolences – that’s it.”