THOUSANDS of Gaza residents who had fled fighting between Israel and Hamas streamed back to devastated border areas during a lull yesterday to find large-scale destruction, including scores of homes pulverised, wreckage blocking roads and power cables dangling in the streets.
At least 100 bodies were pulled from the rubble yesterday, many of them partially decomposed, a Palestinian health official said, taking the total killed to more than 1,000.
A Gaza Civil Defence spokesman said fighters were among the dead.
Last night, Israeli cabinet minister Yuval Steinit said his country would extend the ceasefire until midnight though it was not clear if Hamas would agree.
The 12-hour truce was the only apparent outcome from a high-level mediation mission by United States Secretary of State John Kerry and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon over the past week.
They failed to broker a weeklong ceasefire as a precursor to a broader deal, as hoped.
Instead, Israel’s defence minister Moshe Yaalon 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 ten 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 8 July 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 by militants to stage attacks.
At least 1,000 Palestinians, mainly civilians, have been killed with more than 6,000 wounded in 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.
More than 160,000 displaced Palestinians have sought shelter at dozens of UN-run schools, an eight-fold increase since the start of Israel’s ground operation more than a week ago, the UN said.
Israel claims 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. All the soldiers have died during the ground invasion.
The 12-hour lull yesterday appeared unlikely to change the course of hostilities, with both sides digging in to already entrenched positions.
Israel claims it wants to deter future attacks.
Yaalon said on Friday: “At the end of the operation, Hamas will have to think very hard if it is worth it to taunt us in the future.”
Hamas, in turn, is unwilling to halt fire until it receives international assurances that Gaza’s seven-year-old border blockade will be lifted.
Israel and Egypt tightened the blockade after Islamist Hamas seized Gaza in 2007 from secular rivals Fatah.
After the temporary truce took effect at 8am yesterday, the streets of Gaza quickly filled with residents trying to stock up on supplies or returning to devastated areas to inspect their homes.
Red Crescent ambulances reached the hardest-hit areas, including Beit Hanoun and the eastern Shijaiyah district of Gaza City, to recover bodies.
In two border areas, ambulances were unable to approach because tanks fired warning shots at the vehicles, the Red Crescent said.
In the southern town of Khan Younis, 20 members of the same extended family, including at least ten children, were killed by tank fire that hit a building on the edge of town, said a Palestinian official. 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.
Hundreds of men marched in a funeral procession in Khan Younis yesterday afternoon, chanting “there is only God” while carrying bodies earlier recovered from the ruins, all wrapped in white cloth and some with bloodstains.
The Israeli military said troops would respond to any violations of the lull and continue “operational activities to locate and neutralise tunnels in the Gaza Strip”.
The army has uncovered 31 tunnels and destroyed half of them. 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 demilitarised 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 8 July, exposing most of Israel’s population to an indiscriminate threat.
In Beit Hanoun, the streets were filled at mid-morning yesterday 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 clogged the streets.
Two masked fighters, one with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder, walked by – a rare sighting as they typically do not 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 neighbourhood was being shelled, said director Bassam Abu Warda.
A tank shell hit the second floor of the building, leaving a hole, and the facade was peppered with holes from large-calibre bullets.
Yesterday, 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 [the 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 (ICRC). Yesterday, rescue workers pulled the body of the medic from a vehicle about 200 metres 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 neighbourhoods close to the border.
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 found some of them dead.
They collected the dead birds and gave water to the living in hopes they will survive the war. She spoke of her anger at the lack of action from the surrounding Arab states.
“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.”