Abdullah Moslah, 65, sits in front of the remains of his home in the neighborhood of Juhor al-Deek on Friday. Moslah lost his home in 1948 and is now dealing with the same fate all over again.
Abdullah Moslah, 65, sits in front of the remains of his home in the neighborhood of Juhor al-Deek on Friday. Moslah lost his home in 1948 and is now dealing with the same fate all over again. David Gilkey/NPR
Two displaced Palestinian girls dress for the cold in a gymnasium in the Bureij refugee camp Saturday. Refugees from Juhor al-Deek had been staying in U.N. schools but were forced to move so classes could resume.
Two displaced Palestinian girls dress for the cold in a gymnasium in the Bureij refugee camp Saturday. Refugees from Juhor al-Deek had been staying in U.N. schools but were forced to move so classes could resume. David Gilkey/NPR
Palestinians construct a makeshift tent in Juhor al-Deek. Israeli tanks and bulldozers destroyed the area, which is a strategic high point in Gaza.
Palestinians construct a makeshift tent in Juhor al-Deek. Israeli tanks and bulldozers destroyed the area, which is a strategic high point in Gaza. David Gilkey/NPR
A Palestinian boy climbs onto the back of his donkey while trying to find scrap metal Friday.
A Palestinian boy climbs onto the back of his donkey while trying to find scrap metal Friday. David Gilkey/NPR
In the Gaza Strip, more than 10,000 people remain in refugee shelters and many are unsure how to start rebuilding their lives after three weeks of fighting with Israel.
The Gaza village of Juhor al-Deek is one of the Palestinian communities closest to the Israeli border. It's clear, strategically, why the Israeli army would want to control the land around this farming village during an attack: It holds the high ground overlooking the southern entrance to Gaza City near Salahadin, a main north-south road. What's less clear, though, is why the army demolished almost every house in the village.
Kasm Abu Tar walks through the ruined landscape. The entire village looks like it's been run through a giant meat grinder. Big piles of rubble and debris dot the hillside, home items churned into fragments by armored bulldozers, tanks and heavy shelling. The 17-year-old student says that over the years, this village got used to Israeli raids, but never such devastation.
"When the Israelis came before, we would stay inside our homes," he says. "They would knock on the doors, open up, look around and leave. Maybe some roads would get damaged, but nothing, nothing like this."
A U.N. truck overloaded with blankets rumbles by on the dirt road, past an elementary school badly damaged by tank and machine-gun fire. A few families are burning pieces of their ruined homes to heat water for tea. Some are picking through the wreckage: Half-broken cinderblocks go here, intact cinderblocks go there; burnable shards of clothing here, whole clothing items, there.
Abu Tar says that after the Israelis dropped leaflets warning civilians to leave Juhor al-Deek, almost everyone fled south about three miles to a U.N.-run elementary school in the Bureij refugee camp.
Nowhere To Go
Refugees from the village and surrounding areas were moved out of the school this weekend so the U.N. school could restart classes. About 30 displaced Gazans are now packed into a small changing room below a gymnasium at a U.N. recreation center in Bureij. Aisha Abu Ariban cradles one of her nine young children. Thin foam mattresses are stacked in one corner of the narrow, basement room.
"In this room, we can't tell if it's the daytime or if it's the nighttime because there is no sun," she says. "It's unhealthy. When we lived in the village, we made it with very little money. We didn't need people to donate food to us. All we want is to return home."
But she has no home to return to. She says she has no idea what she and her family will do next. The school nurse at the Bureij refugee camp, Hisham al Askar, says a worrying number of the refugees seem mentally traumatized. Kids aren't sleeping well. Parents seem shattered.
"A woman last night, she started just running in the corridor ... so I gave her a valium injection, and then we transferred her to a hospital," Askar says.
Many of the kids here experienced the Israeli air and ground shelling firsthand. In the past three weeks, Askar has had to become something of a makeshift trauma counselor.
"Yesterday, a kid came in here. He hasn't been eating for like three days. He's in shock. When a shell hit near his house he saw the shrapnel, he saw people cut into pieces," he says. "We're trying to take care of him."
The care here consists of shots of valium and the nurse's well-intentioned but meager attempt at counseling.
"I took a psychology course in school," he says cheerfully. "I tell them, 'You lost your home but not your whole family, so it could be worse.' "
A Long Way From Normal
U.N. officials say enormous work remains to get back to something resembling normal. Most U.N.-run schools and many of Gaza's public schools reopened Saturday. It went as best as could be expected after three weeks of heavy fighting.
"Of course it wasn't a normal school day," says John Ging, who heads the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in Gaza. "But what we have to try and do is return the children to normality as quickly as we can."
"This is an awful situation," he continues. "We have desperation everywhere. We have to try and get the kids back into the schools for obvious reasons. We have people who have nowhere else to go, and of course that's what we're going to be facing now in the coming period — overwhelming need and overall an inadequate response until we can get the aid moving."
And that, Ging says, requires normalization of the border crossings to allow additional supply trucks in. There are no signs that will happen anytime soon. Israel and Hamas, for now, have stopped shooting at each other. But the border crossings remain firmly closed to all but limited humanitarian aid.