No Home to Return to in Gaza

15,000 Still Living In Crowded Shelters

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.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 23, 2009; Page A12

GAZA CITY, Jan. 22 -- When members of the Sultan family ran from their home as an Israeli tank shelled its northern wall, there was no time to shut the front door. There was also no need.

The house, which family patriarch Samir al-Sultan began building at the age of 15, was all but destroyed as Israeli forces advanced into the Gaza Strip in early January, turning the house's contents into a mangled mess of glass and mortar.

With no home to return to and no prospects for rebuilding, the Sultans on Thursday were among the thousands of Palestinians in Gaza searching for somewhere to go.

Israel's 22-day war on Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza, forced 50,000 people into shelters, according to U.N. officials. They say 15,000 remain in such facilities because of damage to their homes -- with countless more finding refuge in the care of relatives.

In the aftermath of the war, there are scenes of devastation at nearly every turn in Gaza. Whole blocks are pockmarked by bullet holes. The earth craters where tall buildings once stood. Mourning tents line the roadways.

Even as many Gazans attempt to return to a normal life -- going to work and shopping in the market -- those displaced during the fighting remain a prominent part of the landscape: By day they return to what is left of their homes to keep watch, building fires to stay warm and picking through the debris in search of valuables. By night they sleep in the living rooms of aunts and uncles or, as in the case of the Sultans, in crowded elementary-school classrooms that have become a temporary refuge -- though for how long no one knows.

The Sultans have moved three times in the 19 days since they fled their home, the family said, giving a more detailed account of their travails than they earlier provided The Washington Post.

In one U.N.-run shelter, their 20-year-old son Abdullah visited the bathroom on the night of Jan. 5 to fetch his mother some water. An Israeli airstrike killed him on the spot, along with two of his cousins.

They are among the estimated 1,300 Palestinians who died in the war, with 5,000 more injured. Thirteen Israelis were killed after Israel began its assault Dec. 27, citing persistent Hamas rocket fire into southern Israel.

The Israeli military says it took all possible precautions to avoid civilian casualties as it fought an enemy embedded among the populace, and also attempted to spare the homes of those who were not involved in violence against Israel.

The Sultans say they fit that description, but their building was fired on nonetheless. The destruction of the family home, which they discovered after the cease-fire, has deepened their sense of grievance.

"They destroyed everything," said Intisar al-Sultan, 50, who lived in the three-story house with her husband, three sons, daughter-in-law and grandson. "They kept nothing. No trees. No animals. Even our clothes are gone. We don't know where to go. We have nothing."

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