Slow Steps Toward Normalcy

The Obama administration's Middle East envoy, former senator George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), arrives in Israel as renewed clashes threaten a tenuous cease-fire between Israel and Hamas after a 22-day conflict in the Gaza Strip.
By Theodore May
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

GAZA CITY, Jan. 19 -- Traffic cops in orange vests and rifle-toting police patrolmen returned in full force to this city's streets Monday, one of several signs marking the slow shift to normalcy after Israel's 22-day siege.

Shops reopened and traffic sputtered and jammed along the Gaza Strip's main north-south artery, which Israeli forces had blocked entirely during the conflict to prevent Hamas from resupplying its fighters.

At Shifa Hospital, Gaza's biggest, where throngs of wounded patients strained resources throughout the war, some finally headed home or were transferred to Egypt, Libya and Jordan.

"I am going back to work tomorrow. Little by little, over the next two weeks, things will go back to normal," said Abdel Rahim Shaleh, an auditor in Gaza City, one of several residents expressing cautious confidence that the cease-fires announced by Israel and Hamas would continue to hold. "If there is no shooting, no occupation, things will continue."

But there were also indications that rebuilding Gaza would be a long and arduous process. Much of the main highway was nearly impassable from the dirt and debris plowed up by Israel's military. Five cement trucks lay on their sides in a parking lot.

In the Twam area north of Gaza City, which had been a temporary base for Israel's tanks, the only running water trickled from a handful of spigots poking through the sand. Sager al-Muzayin's home vanished nearly without a trace, save the fresh tracks of a bulldozer.

"My house used to be here," he said, pointing to the earth as he talked with friends, growing angry. "The only reason people don't blow themselves up against the Israeli army," he said, "is that they can't find explosives."

"Didn't there used to be houses there?" a passerby asked.

Across the street, Tamer Ahmed and his sons stood atop a 15-foot pile of debris, digging with shovels, axes and their hands for any valuables spared destruction. "I had $5,000 saved in here," Ahmed said. "I think the Israelis took it, but we will look anyway."

At Shifa Hospital, many of the most severely wounded remained under care, including several people with crippling burns that doctors said had been caused by white phosphorus, a weapon that under international rules is outlawed for use in urban areas. In a corner of the burn unit lay Sabah Abu Halwa, from the town of Beit Lahiya along the Israeli border, the right side of her body badly burned and her arm bandaged.

"I heard an explosion, so we ran to the living room and my husband was killed immediately. He is a martyr," she said. Of the 17 family members in her house at the time, only one escaped injury. Five died in the blast.

"White phosphorus victims have very deep burns, skin and under. Very deep and they get deeper," said Jalal Talmis, a doctor specializing in burn treatment. "When I first opened the bandage, I smelled chemicals, not burned flesh like you normally do."

Meanwhile, with roads reopened, smugglers who traverse the tunnels that pierce the Egypt-Gaza border were free to resume their trade, residents of the border town of Rafah said. Relentlessly targeted by Israeli forces who believe they are used to traffic arms, the tunnels are also a key component of the black-market economy in a region largely cut off from the outside world. Much-needed supplies had not yet made it to the hardest-hit areas in the north.

"Food is not reaching us," said Saber al-Muzayin, a cashier in Twam. "So we will have to keep relying on what we have stored."

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