Gaza breathes briefly, then holds its breath
Once a home: Inspecting what is left after an air strike in Gaza
GAZA CITY, 17 July 2014 (IRIN) - Mazen, desperate, worked his way to the top of the line. “Excuse me, can I go in front? Its an emergency,” he pleaded. After squeezing his way through the crowd, he implored the bank teller to give him his month’s wages.
While all those in Gaza could claim their situation is critical, Mazen’s is worse than most. The 50-year-old father of six told IRIN that an Israeli bomb targeting his neighbor’s house the day before had all but destroyed his own. "All my savings are gone; my house is gone; my family is displaced. Thank God none of them were injured," he said. "We start all over again, but we won't give up.”
Mazen’s haste was not merely due to his lost home; he also knew he was on a deadline. He needed to get money out, buy key things and find a safe place for his family during a brief, five-hour ceasefire, after which he feared the Israeli strikes - which Israel says have been aimed at militants firing rockets from Gaza - would resume.
The temporary reprieve from the bombardment - negotiated by the UN and backed by both the Israeli army and the key Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad - was the first break in violence since the escalation began on 8 July. The attacks were sparked by the killings of three Israeli teens in the West Bank, which Israel blamed on Hamas, and the murder of 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir.
The ceasefire came only a day after the killing of four children on a Gaza beach by an Israeli attack. While there were a few rockets fired by militants, with both sides accusing the other of breaking the ceasefire, Gaza was quieter than it had seen since the beginning of the latest round of hostilities.
The calm brought with it scenes of desperation. Even before the ceasefire came into effect at 10am, thousands of Palestinians had flocked into the streets. Queues at ATM machines stretched back for blocks, with those waiting telling IRIN they had been in line for up to three hours.
What can people do in five hours? We started at the bank and waited for two hours.
In Gaza City, the traffic was at a standstill, while in local shops and markets the atmosphere bordered on frantic. In a nearby hypermarket, Abdullah, 37, was shopping with his family of four for groceries for the coming days. “It is the first time we have been outside in six days,” he said, adding that they had been running low on some supplies.
"What can people do in five hours?” he lamented. “We started at the bank, waited for two hours, and then came here to buy stuff … as you see everybody is in a hurry. This is miserable and it must end.”
Elsewhere, other families who were among the 22,000 sleeping in UN shelters, braved the streets to check on their homes and neighbourhoods. IRIN saw one family picking through the rubble of what had been their house – searching for of a remainders of lives lost. At al-Shifa Hospital, families jostled to visit their relatives who had been injured.
In total, Gaza’s Ministry of Health estimates that at least 237 Palestinians have been killed in the recent attacks, the vast majority civilians. One Israeli civilian has been killed by mortar fire close to the Gaza border.
For those that remain in Gaza, the situation is becoming more critical by the day with supplies of medicine and food running low.
Embattled citizens were not the only ones seeking to benefit from the brief ceasefire; aid and development agencies, too, took the opportunity to carry out much-needed work. Alun McDonald, communication coordinator with Oxfam in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, said staff had tried their best to scale up their work.
“For the short ‘humanitarian window’, our teams are trying to carry out some assessments of the damage to water and sanitation infrastructure - such as water systems, wells, sewage plants - and how best to repair them," he said. "Lots of water pipes and wells have been badly damaged, and a couple of days ago another of the biggest sewage plants was also hit, with sewage spilling into the streets and fields nearby. The assessments have been needed for the past week but have not been possible due to the ongoing airstrikes,” he added, pointing out that three Palestinian water authority staff had been killed in recent days.
Yet Tony Laurance, CEO of the UK-based Medical Aid for the Palestinians, said they had not been able to do much more than normal as the ceasefire was so brief. “Of course it is some assistance - for staff who have been stuck at home, it is an opportunity to come in and sort out kit, visit locations and so on - but you can’t get much done in the space of five hours,” he said. “What we and the humanitarian community want to see is an enduring ceasefire.”
Rumours of just such an agreement swirled throughout the day, with the BBC quoting Israeli sources as saying an Egyptian-brokered deal had been reached that would see a ceasefire begin at 6am on 18 July. The announcement was later denied by both Israel and Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip.
Laurance said that in the event of a lasting ceasefire, aid agencies would need to act quickly to support the Gazans. “There are two priorities in the first 48-72 hours: ensuring that the most pressing needs of the displaced – food, health, medicine, water – are met and carrying out rapid assessments [of the damage to key infrastructure].”
Yet as the ceasefire came to an end, hopes for a more permanent deal faded. In Gaza, the bombing started again – with several strikes being reported, including a rocket fired by an Israeli drone which hit a house in the al-Sabra neighbourhood and is alleged to have killed three children. And late on Thursday night, a statement from the Israeli Defense Forces [IDF] announced on Twitter that a "large IDF force has just launched a ground operation in the Gaza Strip." The enclave's brief breath of fresh air, it seemed, was over.