The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Gaza, a day of relief for some, dismay for others and uncertainty for most

After the start of a cease-fire on May 21, Palestinians in the town of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip inspect homes destroyed in Israeli airstrikes as the Hamas group in Gaza and Israeli forces battled each other. (Khalil Hamra/AP)

GAZA CITY — Hours after the early-morning cease-fire, Gazans emerged Friday to take stock, some leaving their homes or shelters for the first time in more than a week of bombardments.

Streets that had been silent, except for the blast of Israeli bombs, were alive with noisy traffic as Palestinians ran errands, checked on family members or saw for themselves the devastation they had been tracking on their televisions and phones.

It was a day of relief for some, dismay for others and uncertainty for most. Many Gazans who fled their homes to stay with families or in public shelters still didn’t know what was left of their lives from before the conflict, which officials say killed more than 230 people in Gaza and more than 10 in Israel.

Rami Nakhlal gave in to the pleas of his daughter and two nieces for a walk along Omar Mukhtar Street, Gaza City’s main commercial drag, home to the bookshop where they used to buy toys and school supplies. The girls, ages 8 to 11, already knew the store had been destroyed, but they didn’t understand why. “I couldn’t tell them,” Nakhlal said.

On one side of the street, the facade of their bookstore had been blown off, exposing an interior with some shelves gutted and others still intact with pens and paperbacks neatly arrayed. On the other side, a building had been pancaked into a dense pile, its roof still studded with satellite dishes now sitting near street level.

The girls stood staring and taking selfies amid the bent metal and broken glass. Nakhlal’s daughter, Raghad, narrated a video of the destruction on her tablet. “You see the mall destroyed behind us,” she said solemnly. “The stores are all gone.”

Nakhlal said his family has not slept for almost a dozen nights, catching a few hours only after dawn when the attacks usually slowed. He had just come from his first look at the veterinary lab he manages for the Gaza Ministry of Agriculture. “Thank God only the windows were gone. I can return to work Sunday.”

The cease-fire that took effect at 2 a.m. Friday between Israel and the militant Hamas group that controls Gaza held throughout the day, quieting both the airstrikes on Gaza and the rocket fire into Israel.

But tensions flared again in Jerusalem after Friday prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque, where stone-throwing Palestinians battled Israeli police firing tear gas and rubber-coated bullets. Unrest earlier this month in Jerusalem’s Old City around the sacred compound, known as the Temple Mount by Jews and as the Noble Sanctuary by Muslims, had triggered the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. Clashes also broke out Friday in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Many Israelis and Palestinians welcomed the truce, which was brokered by Egypt, although some right-wing Israelis criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for ending the military campaign before removing Hamas as a threat. Netanyahu said Israel’s military had scored “extraordinary” success against the militants. Hamas also claimed victory.

Blasts, sirens and cries for help

With concerns spiking in Gaza over the destruction of homes and public services, Zaid Rakhawi, 69, put his daughter in a taxi Friday so she could check on her house for the first time in more than a week. “We don’t know yet,” Rakhawi said. “She will call me soon.”

Rakhawi, too, said he had snatched only a few hours of sleep after his dawn prayers during the conflict. After nights of war, the first night of peace had been nearly as loud, with whistles, horns, fireworks and celebratory gunfire. Many of the drivers on the street behind him were still honking their horns; some vehicles were festooned with Palestinian flags, as was a mule cart with a vendor selling bananas at the corner.

“This is a victory,” Rakhawi said, looking around a street that was little more than a debris field. “They destroyed our buildings, but we resisted one of the more powerful countries in the world.”

Down the block, Said Deyazada and his father, Basim, were sweeping up glass that used to be the windows of the men’s clothing store the family has owned for more than half a century. Most of the letters on the sign had been blown off — nothing left of AL-ANDALUS but an A and a D — and a rack of trousers waving in the sea breeze. But the Deyazadas still planned to reopen Saturday morning.

Said, 35, said he had spent the first morning of the cease-fire ordering new stock from Istanbul. “Life has to go on,” he said.

The latest blitz had been Gaza’s most intense, he said. Said’s father, 68, scoffed, saying Israel’s seven-week bombardment in 2014 was more frightening.

But this time did feel different, Basim said. This one started with Palestinians in Jerusalem standing up to Israeli rule, he said, when Arab protesters filled the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood where some Arab residents faced eviction from their houses. And again, he said, when Palestinians fought with Israeli police at al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site.

He applauded Hamas, which governs Gaza, for launching more than 4,000 rockets into Israel.

“This is the first time the Palestinians made a revolution against the government of Israel,” he said.

In recent years, Hamas had lost much of its local support because of Gaza’s ailing economy and crumbling infrastructure. Asked whether the past week had made Hamas more popular, father and son answered in unison: “Yes.”

‘We understood that no place was safe’

For many, the cease-fire did not bring an end to suffering. At Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest medical facility, the wards were full Friday.

Amjed Murtaja, 40, lay in a bed by an open window, remembering the moment he felt his fourth-floor apartment begin to sink. A missile had hit an outside terrace, he recalled, and he ran to his wife and 2-year-old-son, wrapping them in his arms. Seconds later, a second blast hit, and he knew his building was giving way.

“We fell together,” he said.

They had been trapped in the debris for four hours in a near embrace until neighbors and rescuers pulled them free, he said. His son was still pressed to his chest, hysterical but uninjured. His wife’s head was near Murtaja, but with his arms pinned, he couldn’t reach either of them. His wife’s back and a leg were broken, and she will need months of rehabilitation before she walks again, he said.

The Israeli strike that day killed 42 people, health officials say. The Israeli military has said it is investigating the incident.

Murtaja’s wife was recuperating two floors below him in a women’s ward. Across from her was another victim, Mona Amin, 47, who was badly burned and had suffered a broken shin and a shrapnel wound in her head when a missile struck her apartment. The blast had killed her husband and three of her adult daughters.

With all of Murtaja’s belongings still buried in the rubble, he was now forced to wear his brother’s too-small Adidas shirt and some borrowed pants. But he still counted his family lucky.

“We are injured, but we are alive,” he said.