Shocked and grieving Gazans find bodies under the rubble of homes
GAZA: It was a day of digging and bitter discovery. Houses had lost walls, and the dead, after three weeks of war, had lost their faces. Families identified them by their clothes.
As the people of Gaza emerged from hiding on Sunday, they confronted, for the first time, the full, sometimes breathtaking extent of the destruction around them wrought by the Israeli military. Bombs had pulverized the Parliament and cabinet buildings, the Ministry of Justice, the main university and the police station, paralyzing Gaza's central nervous system and leaving residents in a state of shock.
Some places in Gaza City were bustling and matter-of-fact. Work crews in bright orange vests repaired power and water lines. Shops reopened. People lined up at bank machines.
But other areas ached with loss. In Twam in the north, thousands dragged belongings away from ruined houses; they were dazed refugees in their own city. In Zeitoun, families clawed at rubble and concrete, trying to dislodge relatives who had died weeks before. The death toll kept climbing: 95 bodies were taken from the rubble.
More than 20 of them were from the Samouni family, whose younger members were digging with shovels and hands for relatives stuck in rooms inside. Faris Samouni, 59, sat alone, watching them. He had lost his wife, daughter-in-law, grandson, and nephew, and he was heartbroken.
"Twenty-one are down there," he said, starting to cry. "One is my wife. Her name is Rizka."
The dead were badly decomposed, and families searched for familiar personal details that would identify them. One woman's corpse was identified by her gold bracelets. Another by her earrings. And a third by the nightgown she wore. The smell of rotting flesh was suffocating, and as they got closer, the diggers donned masks.
At 10:55 a.m., the body of Rizka Samouni emerged as an Israeli fighter jet roared in the sky. Other corpses followed. Houda, 18. Faris, 14. Hamdi, 21. The smallest corpse that emerged, from a different family, was that of a 4-year-old.
"They killed the elders, the children, the women, the animals, the chickens," said Subhi, 55, Rizka's brother. "It's a nightmare. I never thought I would lose all of them."
Around noon, a worker from the Red Crescent ran up to the diggers. The Israelis had called, telling people to leave, he said. The families began to run, again.
"We have to go!" a woman shouted. "But where can we go? Where do we go?"
An Israeli military spokesman said the order had been issued because the Red Crescent had not coordinated its movement in advance. Later, permission was granted and the diggers returned to exhume the remaining bodies.
One of the areas worst hit was Twam, a neighborhood north of Gaza City, which by Friday afternoon had turned into a disorganized mass move. Donkey carts lurched over torn-up roads, spilling pillows and bedding into the dirt. People dragged bed frames and mattresses out of bombed-out houses. Small boys carried bookshelves. Curtains tied in giant sacks held clothes. Decorative cloth flowers fluttered from a half-closed trunk.
"It's madness," said Riad Abbas Khalawa, who was carrying a computer in one hand with his brother, who was carrying the other side. "Now our home is gone. There's no place for us to sit together as a family."
The question of what they thought Israel's goal was elicited a response from the entire throng listening to Khalawa.
"It's a war against us as people," a man shouted. "What happened to Hamas? Nothing!"
Beker Rahim, a 26-year-old who works for a water distributor, was walking with a cradle on his head, and a blue plastic jug of home-grown olives in his right hand. He had to move a corpse on Sunday morning from near his house, placing it respectfully at the gates of the mosque. As he walked up to his house, he saw it had been mostly destroyed and was unlivable.
The loss was staggering, and acutely felt in the Saker family, which looked like a theater troupe on a stage as they salvaged what remained from the third floor of their house, its walls shorn off, its insides exposed to the neighborhood.
The house had a special meaning. The family had lived for generations in a refugee camp, and six years ago, had saved enough money to build it. This morning they came to find it in shambles, a crushing discovery.
"It was my dream and now it is erased," said Hadija Saker, 55, who ticked off the evidence, as she saw it, of Israel's unjust actions. She said Hamas lacked influence in the area. A teacher at a United Nations school lived on one side. A journalist on the other. Most painful, she said, were her lemon trees, which she had nurtured for years and now lay crushed under the sandy soil crisscrossed with the marks of tank treads.
Anger was compounded when people concluded that Israeli soldiers appeared to have been using their houses. The Sakers found wrappers for chocolate cranberry power bars and corn puffs with Hebrew writing. In another, a child found a tiny Torah.
In the upper middle-class neighborhood of Tal al-Hawa, Ziad Dardasawi, 40, a wood importer, was trying to process what had happened. As a supporter of Fatah, a political rival of Hamas, Dardasawi said he despised Hamas, but that its rocket fire was no justification for Israel's military response.
"Let's say someone from Hamas fired a rocket — is it necessary to punish the whole neighborhood for that?" he said, standing in a stairway of his uncle's house, where furniture had been smashed, and all the windows broken.
He drew on an analogy he thought would strike a chord: "In the U.S., when someone shoots someone, is his entire family punished?"
The Israeli actions made the situation more intractable, he said. "How can I convince my neighbors now for the option of peace? I can't."
He added: "Israel is breeding extremists. The feeling you get is that they just want you to leave Gaza."
It was almost dark and the Samounis were finally burying their dead. It took time to find a car big enough to carry them all. A man had to stand in the back to keep them from falling out.
At the cemetery, a battery-powered neon light cast an eerie glow over men digging the graves. There was a moment of panic when Hamas militants launched a rocket not far away, but then nothing happened.
A final obstacle: There was not enough room to bury all the bodies. The family opened up an old grave to accommodate them.
A cousin, Khamis el-Sayess, observed bitterly: "Even our dead have no land."
But for Yasser Smama, a teenager who was also part of the crowd, there was almost a resigned hope. "Today is not the end," he said. "Today we bury our dead, and we pick ourselves up." Then he pointed at the sky, and said, "We have to be strong because they might hit us again tomorrow."