Why? Villagers Return to Ruin in Gaza

From the main road we spotted a column of Palestinian civilians walking toward a pile of rubble on a hill.

We stopped the car and decided to follow them. They were the people of Johar Deek, a small farming village near the border with Israel.

They were coming back to their homes to see what was left after 22 days of Israel's military operation in Gaza. Israeli tanks and troops and taken over the village and its people had fled to a nearby refugee camp.

On the collapsed ruins of his home, we found the mayor Salem Abu Ideh. His wife and their extended family were picking through the rubble looking for anything they could salvage.

bombed building in Gaza StripPlay

"We are not Hamas, no one here is Hamas, why did Israelis do this to us?" he asked.

Abu Ideh and his family had spent the first five days locked inside their house, but when the food and water ran out they emerged. The Israeli soldiers who had taken over the village were surprised to see them and told them to leave and walk to the el Bureij refugee camp. Monday they returned to see their homes in ruins. Abu Ideh told us 120 homes had been destroyed by Israeli bulldozers.

Halfway up the hill two houses remain standing, the only two in the village, both used by the Israeli army as command posts. Around both, barriers of earth and sand had been piled as protection against snipers. The ground was littered with Israeli rations and spent bullet casings. Inside one house the kitchen had been vandalized.

car bomb wreckagePlay

Disconsolate groups of Palestinians sat on the rubble. Small children picked through piles of clothing. Some scurried about collecting the souvenirs of war: bullets, ammunition boxes, heavy machine gun cartridges and an abandoned vest. Empty cartridges littered the ground.

Selmah Sawarkah said she was about 80 years old. She, too, was sitting where her house used to be. A small circle of neighbors sat with her, trying to console her over her loss. "Everything has gone. My husband died years ago, and I have no family left. Where will I go?" she cried.

The fields and trees of this farming community haven't been spared either. The tank tracks have left the soft earth churned and broken irrigation tubes. The smashed branches of olive trees poke through the surface everywhere.

In what was left of one small paddock, we found a dead donkey shot by a heavy caliber weapon.

Everywhere we saw dead chickens, sheep and goats.

We phoned the Israeli Defense Forces spokesman's office from the scene to ask what had happened in Johar Deek to explain such destruction. Later in the day, the IDF said that if buildings had been demolished there would have had to have been a "substantial military necessity."

Johar Deek is close to the Israeli border, which is less than a mile away. Some villagers told us they believed the Israeli army wanted to create a "people free" strip of land just inside Gaza to make it more difficult for militants to use the ground to launch rockets into Israel.

The Israeli army said it would look into the matter, and its conclusions would be made public.

For now, Johar Deek is certainly uninhabitable. It is not clear if the village will be reborn. Its people lost everything they own.