GAZA CITY – Displaced Gazans returned to the ruins of their homes today after the latest ceasefire between Israel and Hamas took effect.
Carrying mattresses and with children in tow, families left UN shelters for neighbourhoods where whole blocks have been destroyed by Israeli shelling.
As they picked through the rubble to find what possessions were left, the smell of decomposing bodies filled the air.
Sitting on a pile of debris in the northern town of Beit Lahiya, Zuhair Hjaila, a 33-year-old father of four, said he had lost his house and his supermarket.
‘This is complete destruction,’ he said. ‘I never thought I would come back to find an earthquake zone.’
Ramadan Subuh, one of 2,500 Palestinians who have been sheltering inside a packed school building for safety, explained how civilians have struggled to survive nearly four weeks of Israeli bombardment.
‘A life of humiliation – this how we live,’ said Mr Subuh, 42, whose family of 12 fled to the U.N.-run Al-Fakhoura school from Beit Lahiya, a town in the northern Gaza Strip devastated by the fighting.
‘We are terrified. We know it not safe at all. No place in Gaza is safe, and everyone is taking his own chance,’ he said.
Some 260,000 of the Gaza Strip’s population of 1.8 million have taken refuge in schools and other institutions run by the United Nations.
Many are staying put for now, waiting to see if the 72-hour ceasefire that began today holds.
At al-Fakhoura, as many as 50 people have crammed into each classroom, as families use blankets to screen off their cramped quarters from others.
Women use plastic buckets to bathe their children and wash dishes, and while there are 12 bathrooms in the school, there is no running water in them.
‘You have to wait 30 to 60 minutes to get into the bathroom. You have to wait your turn to drink and … to get your lousy meal,’ said Mr Subuh, a former farmhand who used to work in Israel before Hamas Islamists seized power in Gaza in 2007.
He added: ‘Every day they tell us: “Wait until tomorrow and things will get better”. But tomorrow never comes. We hope the war ends and we can go back to live in our houses.’
Al-Fakhoura was bombed in the three-week Gaza war in 2009, but was spared this time. Six other schools, however, have been shelled in the current conflict, and at least 30 people sheltering in them have been killed, and dozens wounded.
Seven miles north of the school, across the Israeli border, three families have spent the past month living in a public shelter in Ashkelon, a town that has been a frequent target of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.
Their older neighbourhood does not have the reinforced ‘safe rooms’ that by law must be built into new apartments, so they sought the refuge of an underground public shelter.
At its entrance, a plastic cup filled with cigarette butts stands on a round table. Inside, mattresses are strewn across the floor where people, five children among them, lie fast asleep.
A widescreen television on the wall informs them of the latest developments. Bags of food, baby formula, clothes and toys are scattered along the walls, which are covered with children’s paintings and the names of past Israeli offensives in the Gaza Strip, scrawled in different colours.
Shir Elkayam, 22, has been living in the shelter with her partner and baby daughter.
‘It’s been rough. It can drive you crazy. Kids can’t be cooped up inside 24 hours a day for a month,’ she said.
‘During the lulls in the fighting, we let ourselves take them out for a bit to a movie or some other place that was safe.’
Ms Elkayam said she and her loved ones were not going home yet, despite the Egyptian-brokered truce.
‘We are waiting to see if the situation does calm down before we move out of the shelter,’ she said. ‘It’s scary. Every siren is scary, every blast is scary.’
The shelter has two toilets but no shower. Like the Palestinians in the Gaza school, the Israelis in the Ashkelon shelter use plastic tubs to wash up.
‘Whenever there was a lull, I would run upstairs to do the laundry,’ Ms Elkayam said. ‘I don’t believe this truce. Otherwise, I would have been upstairs long ago.’
Relatives have brought down food once a day, and a refrigerator was recently put in.
‘It has been tense, we are very nervous. We spent a lot of time just watching the news,’ she added.
The 72-hour truce, which started at 8am local time (6am BST), was agreed by both sides in the month-long conflict which has seen hundreds killed.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki said there was ‘clear evidence’ of war crimes by Israel during its offensive in Gaza as he met International Criminal Court prosecutors to push for an investigation.
Israel and the Palestinians traded accusations of war crimes during the Israeli military onslaught into Gaza, during which Hamas kept up rocket fire into the Jewish state, while defending their own actions as consistent with international law.
Last week, the United Nations launched an inquiry into human rights violations and crimes alleged to have been committed by Israel during the offensive given the far higher toll of civilian death and physical destruction on the Palestinian side.
Malki, visiting The Hague to lobby for action against Israel over its Gaza incursion, said the Palestinians aimed to formally joint the ICC to open the legal avenue for an investigation.
‘Everything that has happened in the last 28 days is clear evidence of war crimes committed by Israel, amounting to crimes against humanity,’ he told reporters in The Hague.
‘There is no difficulty for us to show or build the case. Evidence is there… Israel is in clear violation of international law.’
Israel declined public comment, but a senior Israeli official who asked not to be identified, said any ICC legal action against Israel over the Gaza conflict would prompt an Israeli counter-suit at the ICC against the Palestinians.