GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Bassem Abul Qumbus looked in despair at the wreck of his home. Shells had punched holes in an upper-floor bedroom. A wall had collapsed into the kitchen. The dozens of baby chicks he'd been raising on the roof were dead, except for three tiny survivors and a slightly injured white duck.
"I'm heart-broken," said Abul Qumbus. The 35-year-old father of eight had spent the earnings of a lifetime — about $55,000 — to build the three-story home. Now he's not certain if it can be repaired.
He was one of thousands who streamed into one of Gaza's most devastated areas during a brief lull Friday to retrieve whatever belongings they could. A pair of reading glasses, a toddler's tricycle, a pile of blankets.
But the residents of Shijaiyah, who've spent two weeks sleeping on floors in crowded U.N. shelters and relatives' homes, can't return home for good. Large parts of their neighborhood, which lies near the the border with Israel, have been rendered virtually uninhabitable by Israel-Hamas fighting, including heavy Israeli artillery fire.
And what was meant to be a three-day cease-fire, starting Friday, quickly unraveled over heavy clashes in southern Gaza during which an Israeli soldier was believed captured and at least 35 Palestinians were killed.
In Shijaiyah, an eastern neighborhood of Gaza City, many homes were damaged or destroyed in fighting over the past two weeks. Israeli troops have been combing the area for entry points to Hamas military tunnels, some with exits in Israel.
In this working class neighborhood, the despair over loss of homes was mixed with anger, largely at Israel, but also at Gaza's Hamas rulers. Many here said they simply want to have a decent life, away from conflict.
Abul Qumbus blamed Hamas for his losses, saying the Islamic militants — who seized Gaza in 2007 — are sacrificing the territory's civilians for their militant ideology.
"They just want to have power and money," he said. "They are stuck like a virus. It is very hard to remove them because they took power in the name of religion."
Such views are rarely expressed in public, in part because of fear of repercussions. But Abul Qumbus, who earns $10 a day in his father's supermarket, said he had nothing left to lose after seeing his house trashed.
He spoke as he inspected sacks of flour at his ground-floor storage unit. Bread is increasingly scarce in the tiny Mediterranean territory, and Abul Qumbus, whose family is staying at a U.N. shelter, said he'll use it for home-baking at a relative's house.
Others in the neighborhood said they support the continued Hamas rocket fire on Israel and the group's stated aim to keep fighting until Israel and Egypt have lifted a seven-year-old border blockade of Gaza. Hamas has said it will not halt fire until it gets international guarantees that Gaza's borders will open.
"Israel is responsible" for the devastation, said Suleiman Abul Qumbus, 40, a distant relative of Bassem, sitting with other men under a tree in an open area next to his family's damaged four-story home.
"There will only be peace between us and them on judgment day," he said.
As he spoke, one of his nephews handed him a slim container with reading glasses he had retrieved from the family home. They belonged to the family matriarch, 63-year-old Asmahan, who Suleiman said had asked her grandson to look for the glasses so she could read the Quran, Islam's holy book, for comfort during the fighting.
The men in the courtyard said this war has been far more devastating than Israel's last three-week military operation that ended in January 2009. They said that at that time, residents of Shijaiyah had largely been able to remain in their homes.
Several large craters from Israeli missile strikes punctured Mansoura Street, one of the east-west thoroughfares that lead from Gaza City to the Israeli border. Trees had been cut down, iron shutters and facades peppered by large bullet holes.
Shadi Abul Qumbus, 17, another member of the area's extended family, pulled a plastic tricycle by a rope through a side street. A tinny-sounding tune came from the battery-operated toy.
It's for his 1-year-old cousin, Shadi said. Something to cheer him up.