GAZA CITY — With safe passage promised by a 12-hour humanitarian cease-fire, residents of the areas hardest hit in Gaza fighting returned to their homes Saturday. They could not believe what they saw.
Many roads were barely passable, and almost silent. Women did not wail. The men looked stunned. Their neighborhoods were reduced to ugly piles of gray dust, shattered cement block and twisted rebar.
Huge bomb craters marked the spot where on Friday four-story apartment blocks had stood. On some streets, it seemed as if every house was riddled with bullet holes or shrapnel spray, charred by flames or leveled.
The scale of the damage from Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire was the worst seen in the 19 days since Israel launched its offensive. Much of the damage witnessed Saturday had occurred in the past 24 to 48 hours as diplomats debated the terms of a possible truce.
“It looks like an earthquake,” said Rafet Sukar, at the front door of his home on the main street in Shijaiyah, a residential district east of central Gaza City. The back half of his house was gone.
“It was a miracle we got out of here alive,” said Rami Sukar, his brother.
The tops of mosque minarets — perhaps sources of sniper fire — were blasted away. Schools and hospitals were peppered with shrapnel from missiles and shells that fell within their perimeters.
Water pump stations were blown up, electrical lines toppled onto the streets, the main roads blocked by deep impact craters.
At the front lines, within sight of the concrete wall that separates the Gaza Strip from Israel, fresh trails from Israeli tanks and combat bulldozers snaked through backyard gardens and rolled over greenhouses.
Fires still smoldered as the first reporters and residents reached the towns on the front.
There was no looting, nor any police on the streets.
Ambulances struggled to reach the dead. Search crews followed bulldozers that cleared a path forward. There were reports of wounded still trapped in buildings. The Gaza Health Ministry said its crews had recovered at least 85 bodies Saturday.
According to the ministry, more than 1,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza in the course of the 19-day campaign.
It was obvious that the recovery would take time. In some places, the odor of bodies came so strongly that passersby gagged.
“It will take more than 12 hours to dig them out,” said Yussif Abid al-Hamid, an emergency medical technician wearing latex gloves and trying to get his mask back over his nose. “We need heavy equipment here. We need earthmovers. We can’t dig with our bare hands.”
There were many dead animals, too. Donkeys, horses, cows were scattered at the edges of fields and in the marketplaces. The farm towns at the edges of Gaza are where the shepherds live, and in the shelling they were forced to abandon their flocks.
Down one lane, two men carried a cage filled with songbirds. People in Gaza are so desperate that some who came home to gather up belongings left with a few cans of fruit or a half-gallon of cooking oil.
Local reporters and Gaza residents said the scale of destruction in the areas targeted — the acres of bombed housing — exceeded damage done in the two previous wars of 2009 and 2012. No detailed assessment of the most recent damage was available.
In Beit Hanoun in the northern tier of the Gaza Strip — the scene of intense street battles between Hamas fighters and Israeli troops — there were brass bullet casings and pools of blood and soiled bandages, but no sign of who had won or lost.
Fighters with Hamas and the other militant factions were nowhere to be seen, although Israeli military commanders assumed that the militants would use the 12-hour window to redeploy men and materiel.
Neighborhoods visited by reporters just a day earlier were transformed. Mohammad Shawesh returned to his home in Beit Hanoun on Saturday morning, thinking there might be some minor damage. It was a wreck. He and his family were picking through the gutted rooms, and they assembled at the curb a pitiful bag of rice and a couple of cooking pots.
“I don’t think the truce will last,” he said.
A few hundred yards away, an Israeli tank started up with a cough of brown smoke and began rumbling forward.
Zuhair Hamad had not seen his home in 17 days. It was destroyed. “We came to get some clothes for the kids,” he said. “The clothes are under there somewhere.”
A hysterical neighbor shouted at journalists — “This was an atom bomb!” — before his friends pulled him away.
At the end of their block, another Israeli tank turned a corner around a sandy berm and residents began to run back, shouting, “The Jews are coming!”
After a few hundred yards, Shijaiyah’s main boulevard became impassable for vehicles, and so residents walked. The Israeli military said the district sits on a vast network of underground bunkers, weapons caches and “terror tunnels.”
“I worked 20 years to make my home, to buy the furniture to put inside,” said Mohammad Helou, a carpenter who had lived in a four-story apartment house with the families of his three brothers.
All that was left was a deep hole in the ground, and a prayer rug they dug up.