(Reuters) — Palestinian refugees from Israel’s Gaza offensive emerged from shelters as a brief truce began on Saturday to find many neighborhoods destroyed and animals roaming the streets unattended.
The Kefarneh family trudged back to Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip along with other refugees sheltering in United Nations schools to see if their homes still stood.
Like many others, their was flattened into a twisted heap of concrete and flames still flickered from the rubble. One by one, family members arrived, witnessed what was left and wept.
“Pull yourself together, be strong, aren’t you used to this by now!” one man barked at a sobbing younger relative, only to break down himself. “God help us!” he moaned, covering his face.
The 12-hour humanitarian truce agreed by Israel and Palestinian militants came as the United States and regional powers urgently sought a way to end almost three weeks of conflict that has killed over 900 Palestinians, most of them civilians, and 39 Israelis, mostly soldiers.
Palestinian medics said 61 bodies had so far been pulled from the rubble on Saturday in border areas of the Gaza Strip, where Israeli forces appeared to have largely withdrawn.
“GOD BLESS THE RESISTANCE!”
Israeli tank treads left their imprint in the concrete of the main road, which was smashed in places by artillery shells and ripped down the middle in a straight line hundreds of meters long, apparently by Israeli demolition equipment.
Piles of spent shell casings and emptied boxes of cigarettes with Hebrew writing attested to their recent presence.
Blanched and looking faint, Rehab Zaneen wandered through what was once her street, now covered in grey dust and ruins.
“It’s all gone, our whole lives were in that house, home to 18 people!” screamed Zaneen, a small woman in a black robe and purple headscarf.
“Where will we go now, where will they all go, are we to scatter here and there and never be together and happy again? My God, we want peace, peace and for all this to stop!”
Israel says its ground incursion launched on Sunday aimed to destroy militant tunnels and it takes pains to avoid civilian deaths, having warned hundreds of thousands of people in the endangered areas to flee their advance.
In Beit Hanoun, scene of some fierce fighting, residents cursed the Israeli forces.
A woman pulled the trademark Palestinian black-and-white scarf from the rubble, dusted it off and put it over her head: “They won’t take away our pride. We’ll wear this to Jerusalem and the day of victory is close.”
Another woman, struggling over the wreckage and twisted metal on her street, shouted out: “God bless the resistance! We stand by them and may God make steady their feet!”
Many families, arriving with empty bags to stock up on clothes before the fighting is set to resume, reacted with horror at their loss and found quiet corners to grieve.
A weeping boy stood bent over his skinny horse, tears streaming from its eyers as a fresh wound on its rump dripped blood.
Standing on the rubble of his home, one man telephoned relatives: “I’m here. It’s gone, the whole house is gone.”
Rescue workers and relatives worked frantically to excavate another home, where women and men wailed as three crushed and dust-covered bodies were pulled from the concrete.
“Yahya is alive!” one man rejoiced when a fourth body came out breathing. Tears of grief turned joyful as women shot to their feet, clapped and embraced.
But the mood darkened again when the man wrenched from the rubble appeared to be grievously injured.
“There is nothing called Israel! This is our land! Whatever they do we will not be defeated. Even if no one but a small child remains, the land of Palestine will be liberated!” shouted Intisar Al-Shinbari, an aunt of the three dead men.
Zaki al-Masri, noting quietly that his house and his son’s were destroyed, appeared to be in no mood for slogans.
“The Israelis will withdraw - tomorrow or the day after - and we’ll be left in this awful situation, as usual. We don’t need a truce for just twelve hours, but for all time,” he said.