Palestinians Return Home to Piles of Rubble

After hours of waiting on the Egyptian side of the Egyptian-Gaza border, we, along with a swarm of other journalists, were finally given the green light to enter the Gaza Strip.

As darkness fell, our Palestinian bus driver made the crossing we had all been waiting to make since this conflict began three weeks ago. Until recently, no Western journalists had been allowed into Gaza to report, and most of us had to rely on residents and local TV stations for information.

In Rafah, in southern Gaza, we were welcomed with a power outage. Apparently, this happens haphazardly every day, but because this area of Gaza gets its electricity from Egypt, power is restored within hours.

While driving down the streets in the evening, hardly anyone was out, even though it was the first day of the cease-fire.

What struck me was the degree of destruction. Even in the dark, we could see it. Piles and piles of rubble. from the main police headquarters, which was blown to smithereens on the first day of the Israeli airstrikes, to a nearby hospital for handicapped kids. Just mountains of debris on both sides of the road and flattened buildings.

On the main street, there were small signs of normalcy, with some stores open selling food and water. No lines, though, just a handful of people venturing out after being indoors for most of the past three weeks.

In the morning, we found more people and traffic on the streets.

Walking through the fruit and vegetable market, the relief on people's faces was evident. People here have not had any fruit for the past six months. This week, a shipment was driven in through the Karem Shalom crossing. Walking through the market stalls, all I could hear people talking about was fruit. They were so proud. Even though this market had been open most of the time during the aerial bombardment, its stock had been limited.

At one of the two United Nations schools here, people were still seeking shelter. For at least 1,200 people, this is still home.

Families of 10, sometimes more, have been cooped up in classrooms, huddling together for safety. Some of the kids have been affected psychologically.

That's where Dr. Mohammed Abu Nugaira steps in; he provides counseling and tries to engage them in games in the schoolyard. He said they still cower in corners when they hear a jet or a drone buzzing overhead.

Rafah bore the brunt of the Israeli air attacks, because of the network of tunnels that run through to Egypt. It serves as Hamas' main supply route. Weapons are smuggles through the tunnels, as well as food and fuel.

But it's also a residential area, home to tens of thousands of Palestinians. Many houses and entire blocks of apartments were hit and reduced to rubble. It is now a wasteland.

Today its residents were digging with their bare hands, trying to salvage anything they could. We met Um Hasan sitting on a block of cement where her house once stood. It was badly damaged, and all that remains is a gaping crater. She said she had nothing left but the clothes she was wearing.

As soon as the airstrikes began, she said, they fled to stay at their relatives in a nearby town. Um Hasan said that she couldn't stop staring and crying when she came back home. Now she said she had nowhere to go.

Despite all the destruction and loss here, the Hamas government has not collapsed. It is still in control, with strong backing from many Gazans. They believe the Hamas fighters have defended them and what they said is their right to live on this small sliver of land.

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