Middle East


From NPR News, this is Weekend Edition. I'm Liane Hansen. In the Gaza Strip, the United Nations and private relief agencies are struggling to care for and shelter thousands of people who fled or whose homes were destroyed or damaged by the Israeli military during the three weeks of fighting. Doctors in Gaza say some 1,300 Palestinians were killed. Thirteen Israelis died in the conflict. In Gaza, more than 10,000 people remain in refugee shelters. The Hamas government, operating from makeshift offices because its administrative buildings had been bombed, said it would provide $52 million in cash relief for families who lost relatives or had their homes damaged. As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, many of the refugees are unsure how to start to rebuild their lives.

ERIC WESTERVELT: The Gaza village of Juhor al-Deek is one of the Palestinian communities closest to the Israeli border. It sits on the high ground overlooking the southern entrance to Gaza City near Salahadin, a main north-south roadway. So it's clear strategically why the Israeli army, during an attack, would want to control the land around this farming village. What's less clear, though, is why the army demolished almost every house in Juhor al-Deek.

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 Israeli armored bulldozers, tanks and heavy shelling. The 17-year-old student says over the years, this village got used to Israeli raids but never saw such devastation.

Mr. KASM ABU TAR (Palestinian Student): (Through Translator) When the Israelis came before, we would stay inside our homes. They would knock on the doors, open up, look around and leave. Maybe some roads would get damaged, but nothing, nothing like this.

WESTERVELT: 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 tea water. 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 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. Refugees from the village and surrounding areas were moved out of the school this weekend so the U.N. 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.

Ms. AISHA ABU ARIBAN (Palestinian Refugee): (Through Translator) In this room, we can't tell if it's the daytime or if it's the nighttime because there is no sun. 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.

WESTERVELT: 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 U.N.-run Bureij refugee camp, Hisham al Askar, says a worrying number of the refugees seem traumatized. Kids aren't sleeping well; Parents seem shattered.

Mr. HISHAM AL ASKAR (Nurse, Bureij Refugee Camp): (Through Translator) 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.

WESTERVELT: Many of the kids here experienced the Israeli air and ground shelling firsthand. In the last three weeks, nurse al Askar has had to become something of a makeshift trauma counselor.

Mr. AL ASKAR: (Through Translator) Yesterday, a kid came in here. He hasn't been eating for like two or three days. He's in shock. When a shell hit near his house, he saw the shrapnel. He saw people cut into pieces. We're trying to take care of him.

WESTERVELT: The care here consists of shots of valium and the nurse's well-intentioned but meager attempts 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. U.N. officials here 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.

Mr. JOHN GING (Director, U.N. Relief and Works Agency, Gaza): Of course, it wasn't a normal school day. But what we have to try and do is to return the children to normality as quickly as we can.

WESTERVELT: That's John Ging, director of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in Gaza.

Mr. GING: This is an awful situation. I mean, 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.

WESTERVELT: And that, Ging says, means normalization of the border crossings into Gaza, including additional supply trucks being allowed in by Israel every day. 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 supplies. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Gaza City.

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