Residents of Rafah return to devastated homes, shattered lives in Gaza border town

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Asmahan Ismail Abu al-Rous started wondering a year ago about the cause of the cracks on the walls of her Gaza home. When she asked some of her more savvy neighbors, they told her: Militants were digging an attack tunnel not far away.

"I did not think much about it then. I thought that was the resistance's business, not mine," the widowed mother of four said Tuesday, standing amid the ruins of her two-story home in the Shawkah district, an eastern section of Rafah near Gaza's border with Egypt.

Barely 50 meters (yards) away, according to villagers, is an entrance of the tunnel where Hamas fighters emerged Friday to attack Israeli soldiers. Two Israelis were killed and a third was initially believed to be captured by the militants.

That attack drew what was by far the heaviest Israeli shelling in the Gaza war, killing nearly 100 people that day alone and instantly unraveling a cease-fire shortly after it came into force. A day later, Israel determined the missing soldier, a 23-year-old infantry lieutenant, had been killed in the initial attack.

On Tuesday, when a new 72-hour truce took hold, residents returned for the first time to see the extent of the destruction — the worst in a single district anywhere in the Gaza Strip during four weeks of fighting.

The consequences of living near the tunnel were clear. Everything within about a 1-kilometer (half-mile) radius of the opening was badly damaged or outright flattened. Buildings and homes were hollowed out and punctured or reduced to concrete slabs with metal rods and furniture scattered around.

All that was left of the tunnel entrance, located in a field once dotted with fruit trees, was a cavity the size of a volleyball court. Hundreds of trees and date palms lay flattened or partially knocked over, their roots sticking out, in a dusty landscape shattered by shelling and covered with tank tracks.

Abu al-Rous sat outside, saying little to one of her sons, Fady, who also came to check on the house, which she estimated was worth about $200,000.

But her anger and frustration were just below the surface. One of several teenagers casually asked her whether she knew where the attack had taken place.

"I don't know," she snapped. "Those who carried out the attack should tell you."

Across Rafah, thousands of others stood amid the ruins of their homes, staring at what was left of their lives. Those who fled to stay with relatives in safer areas or who took refuge in U.N.-run schools returned to salvage what they could.

Men exchanged warm handshakes and kisses on the cheeks, telling each other, "May God compensate you," and "Thank God you are safe."

"I never saw anything like that in my life," said Tawfiq Barbakh, a 67-year-old father of 12, as he surveyed his badly damaged home. "I don't know how many shells landed every minute, but it felt like 20 or 30. It was like the gates of hell opened on us."

The shelling appeared to have spared little in Rafah. Mosques, homes, offices, stores, schools and at least one hospital were in ruins, badly damaged or riddled by shrapnel or gunfire.

The Israeli military said Friday the shelling was part of intelligence and security operations to find the missing soldier. Rafah residents said the death toll was so high because the shelling took everyone by surprise since they thought a truce was in force.

"I saw death with my own eyes," said resident Khalil Barbakh. "There were dead bodies on the streets, the wounded screaming and people running away from the shelling."

Manar Abu Louli, a widowed pharmacist and mother of three teenagers, found her two-story home punctured by an artillery shell.

She also found evidence that Israeli soldiers had used her home as a makeshift field headquarters before pulling out this week: empty bullet cartridges carrying the acronym "IMI" — Israeli Military Industries — as well as bread, cans of tuna, sausages, chocolates, carrots, apples, a watermelon and plastic cups.

The soldiers also made holes in several walls for snipers to use, fortifying them with sandbags or bricks. They used her towels and sheets to cover blown-out windows. They also scrawled drawings on her bedroom wall: crying clowns and a scene of a sun, clouds and flowers.

"I don't know whether the house can be repaired after all this damage," said the 36-year-old Abu Louli, holding back tears as she searched for family records, diplomas and other important documents among her belongings strewn on the bedroom floor. Outside, at least four sand barriers used to protect tanks and tracks suggested that the house was turned into a field headquarters for an Israeli unit.

"She is lucky," one relative said. "If they had not wanted to use her home for shelter, they would have shelled it to bits."

Across Hamas-ruled Gaza, the fighting has devastated already-crumbling infrastructure from a seven-year border blockade by Egypt and Israel, and previous bouts of violence in 2008-09 and 2012. About 250,000 people have been displaced.

In the heart of Gaza City, a stinking mountain of garbage has been growing each day at a collection point because trucks were unable to take it to a landfill near the border, an area where Israeli forces were deployed until Tuesday. Raw sewage has been pouring into the Mediterranean after an airstrike on a Hamas intelligence building damaged a pumping station that transfers the waste to a treatment plant.

Nearly 1,900 Palestinians — mostly civilians, including 400 children — have died since the conflict began July 8. The Israeli airstrikes came in response to rockets fired into Israel by Hamas and other militants. Earlier, Israel arrested Hamas activists after the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers.

More than 60 Israelis, mostly soldiers, have been killed.

While the Palestinian militants aim their rockets and mortar shells at Israeli cities, Israel says it is strictly targeting launch sites and militants who often embed with civilians. Israel says it is doing its utmost to avoid harm to civilians, warning them in phone calls, leaflets and text messages to leave areas about to be attacked.

The destruction and suffering in Rafah have lent themselves to heated discussions about the war and its consequences. A group of men sat in the Shawkah district not far from Abu Louli's house to smoke and drink sweet black tea.

"The Israelis have hit us really hard this time. They destroyed us," said one man.

"I am convinced that no one dies before his time," replied another.

"Arab nations never came to our rescue," said the first man. "They are all preoccupied with their problems — Egypt, Libya, Syria and Iraq."

The second man retorted: "They should take fighting lessons from us."

A group of younger men then joined the mostly older group.

One of the new arrivals interjected sarcastically: "We have defeated the occupation, thanks be to God."


Associated Press reporter Karin Laub in Gaza City contributed to this story.