BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip — Thousands of Gaza residents who had fled Israel-Hamas fighting streamed back to devastated border areas during a lull July 26th to find large-scale destruction: scores of homes were pulverized, wreckage blocked roads and power cables dangled in the streets.
The 12-hour truce was the only immediate outcome from a high-level mediation mission by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon over the past week. They failed, however, to broker a weeklong cease-fire as a precursor to a broader deal.
Instead, Israel’s defense minister warned he might soon expand the ground operation in Gaza “significantly.” In the northern town of Beit Hanoun, residents encountered widespread destruction. Most had fled days earlier, following Israeli warnings that the town would be shelled.
Siham Kafarneh, 37, sat on the steps of a small grocery, weeping. The mother of eight said the home she had spent 10 years saving up for and moved into two months earlier had been destroyed. “Nothing is left. Everything I have is gone,” she said.
Israel launched a major air campaign in Gaza on July 8 and later sent ground troops into the Hamas-ruled territory in an operation it said was aimed at halting Palestinian rocket fire and destroying cross-border tunnels used for attacks.
At least 985 Palestinians, mainly civilians, have been killed and more than 6,000 wounded over the past 19 days, according to Palestinian officials. Israeli strikes have destroyed hundreds of homes, including close to 500 in targeted hits, and forced tens of thousands of people to flee, according to Palestinian rights groups.
More than 160,000 displaced Palestinians have sought shelter at dozens of U.N. schools, an eight-fold increase since the start of Israel’s ground operation more than a week ago, the U.N. said.
Israel says it is doing its utmost to prevent civilian casualties, including sending evacuation warnings to residents in targeted areas, and blames Hamas for putting civilians in harm’s way. Israel has lost 37 soldiers and two civilians, and a Thai worker has also been killed.
“There is no proof that any kind of gratuitous damage is being inflicted,” said Israeli legislator Ofer Shelah of the centrist Yesh Atid party. Israeli troops are “fighting with an enemy dug in within the civilian population, dug in underground or within the houses there,” he said, adding that “those are the consequences of such a fight.”
The 12-hour lull appeared unlikely to change the course of the current hostilities, with both sides digging in. Israel wants deterrence. “At the end of the operation, Hamas will have to think very hard if it is worth it to taunt us in the future,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said.
Hamas, in turn, is unwilling to halt fire until it receives international assurances that Gaza’s border blockade will be lifted. Israel and Egypt tightened the blockade after Hamas seized Gaza in 2007.
After the temporary truce took effect at 8 a.m. Saturday, the streets of Gaza quickly filled with residents trying to stock up on supplies or returning to devastated areas to inspect their homes.
Ambulances of the Red Crescent reached the hardest-hit areas, including Beit Hanoun and the eastern Shijaiyah district of Gaza City, to recover bodies.
Eighty-five bodies were pulled from the rubble Saturday, many of them partially decomposed, said Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra. Fighters were among the dead, said Gaza Civil Defense spokesman Said al-Saoudi.
In two border areas, ambulances were unable to approach because tanks fired warning shots, the Red Crescent said.
In the southern town of Khan Younis, 20 members of an extended family, including at least 10 children, were killed by tank fire that hit a building on the edge of town, said Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra.
The house partially collapsed and people were buried under the rubble. The family had recently moved into the building after fleeing fighting in a nearby village, said al-Kidra.
Hundreds of men marched in a funeral procession in Khan Younis, chanting “there is only God” while carrying the bodies, all wrapped in white cloth and some with bloody stains.
The Israeli military said troops would respond to any violations of the lull and continue “operational activities to locate and neutralize tunnels in the Gaza Strip.”
Shelah, who is briefed on developments as a member of Parliament’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, said the army has so far uncovered 50 tunnels. Israel considers the tunnels to be a strategic threat because militants have used them to launch surprise attacks inside the country.
The Israeli government has also begun suggesting that Gaza be demilitarized as a condition for a permanent cease-fire so that Hamas cannot rearm itself. The current war is the third in Gaza in just over five years.
Gaza militants have fired close to 2,500 rockets at Israel since July 8, exposing most of Israel’s population to an indiscriminate threat that has killed three civilians.
In Beit Hanoun, the streets were filled at midmorning with frantic residents, many of whom had walked several miles from temporary shelters to inspect the damage to their homes and retrieve belongings.
Ambulances with wailing sirens and donkey carts loaded with mattresses and pots soon clogged the streets. Two masked fighters, one with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder, walked by — a rare sighting since they typically don’t appear in the open.
At the Beit Hanoun hospital, six patients and 33 medical staff had spent a terrifying night huddled in the X-ray department as the neighborhood was being shelled, said director Bassam Abu Warda.
A tank shell had hit the second floor of the building, leaving a gaping hole, and the facade was peppered with holes from large-caliber bullets. The remaining patients were evacuated, including 85-year-old Nasra Naim.
The elderly woman and a second patient were resting on mattresses on the ground floor of the hospital, amid debris and glass shards.
Naim’s daughter, Naame, said her home was destroyed in the shelling. “I don’t know where to go,” she said. “They (Israelis) killed our children, they took our land and now they are still following us.”
Two Red Crescent ambulances were hit in Beit Hanoun overnight, killing a medic and wounding three, one critically, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Rescue workers pulled the scorched body of the medic from the wrecked vehicle, which had been hit about 200 meters (yards) from the hospital.
“Targeting ambulances, hospitals and medical workers is a serious violation of the law of war,” said Jacques de Maio, head of the ICRC delegation for Israel and the occupied territories.
Hardest-hit were Beit Hanoun neighborhoods close to the border with Israel, areas from where Gaza militants typically fire rockets.
Manal Kefarneh, 30, wept as she inspected her damaged home. On an unfinished top floor, she and her husband had been raising chickens, and she now found some of them dead. They collected the dead birds and replenished water for the living in hopes they will survive the war. “What did we do to deserve this?” she asked. “All of the Arab leaders watch what’s going on here like it’s a Bollywood film.”
By Karin Laub and Yousur Alhlou. AP writer Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City contributed to this report.