Gazans dig bodies from the rubble as ceasefire begins

A Palestinian child gestures as he looks for belongings in the remains of his destroyed house in...
A Palestinian child gestures as he looks for belongings in the remains of his destroyed house in the heavily hit eastern area of Jebaliya, in the northern Gaza strip. Photo by AP.
Families began their desperate search as soon as Israeli soldiers abandoned this devastated refugee camp Sunday, picking by hand through mounds of concrete and steel for the bodies of dead relatives, belongings and even scraps of bombs to sell as recycled aluminum.

After three-weeks of punishing air strikes against Hamas militants who have been firing missiles at Israel for the last eight years, streets were turned into dunes of twisted metal, splintered wood and concrete chunks as Israel smashed much of Gaza's already shabby infrastructure and turned neighborhoods in to battle zones.

The fragile cease-fire and first movements of troops withdrawing from Gaza on Sunday allowed families and medics to intensify the search for bodies - with more than 100 dead recovered Sunday, according to Palestinian health officials. The number of Palestinian dead now stood at more than 1250, half of those civilians. Thirteen Israelis were killed in the fighting.

Zayed Hadar, who like other residents of Jebaliya, on the edge of Gaza City, had been barred by ground combat from his home for two weeks, sifted through his family home with most of his 10 children. The three-floor building had been flattened.

"We've pulled out my nephew, but I don't know how many are still under there," Hadar said, as several Israeli tanks could be seen in far distance.

Nearby, Palestinian boys, both cynically and desperately, mined for shards of aluminum from missiles that had killed so many.

"This big bit can bring back 1 Shekel" or US 0.25c, said Youssouf Dardoum, holding out a large chunk of twisted missile case.

Meanwhile, neighbours franticly dug through mounts of dirt nearby to free a sheep bleating from among duck carcasses.

Evidence of the destruction was everywhere, in the churned up farmland, broken electricity poles dangling in the air, the charred bodies of cars abandoned on pulverized roads and sewage overflowing from broken pipes. The stench of rotting bodies, both human and animal, hung over the area.

A mosque nearby lay entirely flattened save for a lone minaret that loomed over the dusty concrete.

Hamas policemen also emerged for the first time since fighting began in their dark blue uniforms, directing traffic. Others prevented looting, at one point firing volleys into their air as Jebaliya residents tried to lynch a youth accused of picking belongings in a ruined house that wasn't his.

In the northwest Gaza Strip farming community of Atatra, where ground fighting raged between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants, medics wearing white face masks to block out the stench pulled five bodies from a smashed house, including a woman in a long blue robe, then the leg of a child.

"We don't know if they are human or animal, it's a shame! By God, we are human!" said a medic who gave his name only as Ahmad, pushing down the cloth covering his face. "We need specialized emergency teams, we are digging with our hands."

Khadija Radi, 83, watched as her great-grandchildren to picked through the remains of her damaged home. She sat on a pile of concrete, holding prayer beads, her walking stick beside her.

"These are the only things left from my belongings," she said, pointing to a pillow and a slipper. Her daughter Sadia salvaged dusty mattresses and loaded them onto a donkey cart.

Like many other residents from damaged zones, Sadia Radi said her extended family of 27 would sleep at a relative's place until they could find money to repair their home. Britain on Sunday announced it was tripling its aid to Gaza, with an additional 20 million pounds, or about $US29 ($NZ53.57) million, going toward rebuilding damaged homes and helping those injured in the violence.

The cease-fire remained shaky as drones buzzed overhead Sunday. Hamas militants fired 16 rockets before their Gaza leaders announced their own cease-fire. Plumes of smoke from an Israeli missile also rose over Gaza City's outskirts in the afternoon, and Israeli snipers blocked access through the Strip's main north-south road.

Around 50,000 Gazans sought refuge in UN compounds and schools converted into shelters throughout Israel's military operation. It is not clear how many of them remain homeless.

In an initial indication of damage, Gaza municipal officials said a first count showed some 20,000 residential and government buildings were severely damaged and another 4,000 destroyed. Some 50 of the UN's 220 schools, clinics and warehouses were battered in shelling and crossfire.


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