As cease-fire holds in Gaza, a painful reckoning with war’s physical toll

Mohammed Salem/Reuters
Palestinians from the Zawaraa family hold candles as they sit in a makeshift tent amid the rubble of their houses, which were destroyed by Israeli airstrikes during the Israeli-Palestinian fighting in Gaza, May 25, 2021.

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A week after Israel and Hamas agreed to a cease-fire, Palestinians in Gaza are still digging through the rubble. The scale of destruction from Israeli airstrikes is staggering: 450 buildings destroyed and six hospitals demolished. So too is the human toll of death, suffering, and displacement. 

Families are now reuniting after dividing their children among friends and relatives, so that should their own home be hit by a missile, at least one of their children would survive. It is a familiar dilemma: Israel previously waged wars against Hamas, the militant organization that runs Gaza, in 2009, 2012, and 2014. 

Why We Wrote This

The human toll from Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes in Gaza is palpable on the ground. Many residents worry that it won’t be the last war in their territory.

In addition to the destruction of homes, the war pummeled Gaza’s public infrastructure. The United Nations is due to seek international donations for rebuilding, but there is also wariness of another conflict. 

Some Gazans are joining volunteer groups to help shift debris from the streets. “Removing the rubble is a way to challenge the reality of 11 days of shelling,” says Ghada Abu Samra, a university student who joined an apolitical youth-led campaign. She wants to show the world that “Gaza has and can stand up again.”

Ali Abu Hada searches through the rubble that was once his men’s clothing store in Gaza City.

He is not salvaging merchandise or clearing the concrete and twisted metal to rebuild his store. He is simply searching for a souvenir so he can remember his “dream business.”

“I am not sure how long or how much money it will take for me to restart my business. We have to start from the very beginning,” Mr. Abu Hada says.

Why We Wrote This

The human toll from Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes in Gaza is palpable on the ground. Many residents worry that it won’t be the last war in their territory.

“But what I am sure is ... regardless of the destruction, the blockade and the Israeli bombings, we will always keep our spirits high.”

The destruction wrought here by Israeli bombings in the 11-day war with Hamas is staggering, according to United Nations-appointed human rights experts: 450 buildings destroyed, six hospitals demolished, 74,000 Gazans displaced, and 253 people killed, including 66 children. 

In Israel, 12 civilians were killed over the same period by rockets fired by Hamas, which rules Gaza, a besieged coastal enclave of 2 million that is among the world’s most densely populated. 

But the numbers in Gaza fail to capture the personal impact for residents who have lost everything – from homes to businesses to loved ones – for the second time in a few years.

Short of cash to rebuild and wary of another escalation that leads to more Israeli missiles, most Gazans say they are left without much hope and simply clinging to their will to endure.  

Courtesy of Ahmad Murtaja
Young volunteers clear rubble-strewn streets in Gaza City as part of the "We will rebuild' campaign on May 24, 2021.

Fourth time around

Since last Friday’s cease-fire, Gazans have been visiting relatives and friends who survived the onslaught in an atmosphere that is both sorrowful and triumphant. 

Families are reuniting after splitting up their children among friends and relatives, so that should their own home be hit by a missile, at least one of their children – and their lineage – would live on.

After an Eid al-Fitr holiday spent hiding from airstrikes, parents and relatives are baking date cookies in an attempt to cheer up children who missed out on the traditional celebration at the end of Ramadan. 

Since Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, it has waged wars against Hamas in 2009, 2012, 2014, and now this month’s fighting. Some Gazans, who aren’t allowed to leave the coastal strip, have begun to mark time in conflicts, using terms such as “four wars old,” for a child of 12. 

Sports journalist Alaa Shamali is picking up the pieces after losing his home for the second time in seven years.

After fighting between Israel and Hamas in 2014 destroyed Mr. Shamali’s home in the Shujaiyya neighborhood, he decided to buy an apartment in central Gaza City, a tightly packed commercial area that also has residential tower blocks. In the past, Israel’s military had spared the district because of its dense population and lack of strategic value, so he figured it was a safer place to live and work.   

When an Israeli missile strike destroyed his high-rise apartment building last week – one of nine similar buildings in the city destroyed in the war – he was still paying loan installments on the $65,000 unit.

Now Mr. Shamali and his family of seven are back in Shujaiyya, living out of the few bags they could carry to his parents’ two-room home. “The toughest is when you feel lost with no sense of ease or even privacy,” he says. “We have lost a lot, but this loss never seems to be enough.”

And not only has he lost his home, but Israeli missiles also destroyed the offices of his employer, the Felesteen Newspaper. The newspaper is still publishing online, but his job is far from secure. 

Mr. Shamali is trying to find ways to make his five children forget the conflict, since “what they have seen so far is just destruction and loss,” he says. He is focusing on finding a new home for his family – this time for rent.

“All I want is to help my children to live in peace and pave the way for them to pursue their dreams in a safe environment,” Mr. Shamali says.

Many reunions in Gaza are taking place beside hospital beds. At al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, Ahmed el-Dremli stands by the side of his 10-year-old son Wadea, who is recovering from a shrapnel injury after a missile hit a neighbor’s house in their village of Beit Lahai. 

“I promised my children to take them to the playground, to buy chocolates and sweets for them during Eid after fasting for Ramadan,” Mr. el-Dremli says. “I did not expect our Eid would be spent in hospital and surgery rooms.”

After undergoing surgery to remove shrapnel from his body, Wadea has a three-week recovery period before he can play again. “I can’t wait to recover to see my friends and family,” he says, caressing the white bandages covering his left arm, “but I am still afraid.”

Courtesy of Abdalla Alnaami
Ten-year-old Wadea el-Dremli, recovering from shrapnel wounds, anxiously awaits his return home from the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza on May 23, 2021.

“We will rebuild”

In addition to the destruction of homes, the war pummeled Gaza’s public infrastructure. This includes a water desalination plant that supplied 250,000 Palestinians with clean drinking water, and Gaza’s only COVID-19 testing center. Fuel and drinking water are also in short supply.

The United Nations Relief Agency and Works Agency, UNRWA, warned on Friday that there “was no going back to normal” in the enclave after a war that was “worse in intensity and terror than 2014.”

The U.N. is still assessing the cost of reconstruction before it seeks international aid pledges. On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the United States will provide $110 million in additional aid to Palestinians, including $5.5 million in immediate assistance to Gaza.

But Gazans are taking matters into their own hands.

Youth volunteers are working to clear the debris on their own as part of a youth-led campaign called “We will rebuild.”

The independent, apolitical initiative began in the Al Rimal district in Gaza City, where several tower blocks were struck. It then spread to other neighborhoods where volunteers worked together to remove rubble and clear blocked roads. 

“Removing the rubble is a way to challenge the reality of 11 days of shelling,” says Ghada Abu Samra, a university student volunteering in the campaign.

Ms. Abu Samra said that she wants to show the world that “Gaza has and can stand up again.”

“I lived through four wars so far. I’ve never felt or seen people coming down to the streets and taking initiative with their own hands like this,” says Ahmad Murtaja, a psychologist and independent activist who founded the initiative.

“This time we are not waiting for international support. This is an effort to say that we’re grateful for this place, that we love Gaza. We are clearing the pathway for a new reality.”

Yet until the root causes of the conflict are addressed, Gazans say they are aware that the next round of violence is “only a matter of time.”

Mr. Abu Hada, the clothing shop owner, called on the international community to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and hold Israel accountable for what he called “war crimes.”

Correspondent Fatima Abdulkarim contributed to this report from Ramallah, West Bank.

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