Youssef Abdel Hamid’s ambulance crew spent the first three hours of its shift Tuesday picking up charred and broken bodies: the man struck dead in his potato patch, the 15-year-old boy who perished with his sheep herd, the father who was blown to pieces in an attack that injured his son.

“Usually, we find the dead in fragments. We pick up a hand here, a leg there,” said Yusri al-Masry, a paramedic.

A week of conflict has passed in the Gaza Strip. And despite swirling rumors of an Egyptian-
brokered cease-fire
, the feeling here Tuesday was that the fighting would go on, that the paramedics’ grisly rounds would continue.

Israel’s ongoing offensive, dubbed Pillar of Defense by its planners, has been a less-deadly assault than its predecessor four years ago, Operation Cast Lead.

The Palestinian death count, at 134 as of Tuesday night, is significantly lower than it was after the first week of Cast Lead, which claimed more than 1,400 lives. Perhaps as a result, international criticism of the current operation has been more subdued.

Gaza rocket attacks, Israeli airstrikes double from 2008 conflict

But for Gazans, none of that is relevant when the fear is just as real now as it was then.

The F-16s still fly low overhead, in a sudden roar of noise before the air-sucking pressure of an explosion throws grown men to the floor.

It happened twice within five minutes as Abdel Hamid’s crew sat in an ambulance station in northern Gaza on Tuesday. The force of the blast shattered the glass windows and rocked the battered ambulances outside.

No one knew what target was out there in the open field where the missiles landed, just past the driveway. But such is war with Israel, the crew members said ruefully.

The medics have fewer calls this time around than they did during Cast Lead. The hospitals are less crowded, and so are the morgues. But the images at the scene of the blasts are the same — families buried beneath twisted metal and concrete rubble, human beings reduced to heaps of organs and flesh.

To many Gazans, the only reason the death toll is lower than it was at this point four years ago is that the Israelis are taking their time, careful not to provoke international outrage.

“The targets in both wars are the same. But they’re doing it over a longer period of time, so as to prevent another Goldstone report,” Abdel Hamid said, referring to the highly critical report published by a U.N. fact-finding team led by South African judge Richard Goldstone after the 2008-2009 war. The report faulted both Israel and Hamas for civilian deaths, infuriating Israeli officials. Goldstone later retracted some of the assertions against Israel.

Israeli officials say that both Cast Lead and the ongoing operation are borne out of self-defense, after years of rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel.

But Palestinians say different motives are at work, principally a need for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to shore up support before elections in January.

“Of course, no one wants this war. The war was imposed on us. But they want the war because of the election,” said Saeed Mohana, owner of a stationery shop in downtown Gaza City.

Ultimately, people here believe, the death toll will be just as high as it was four years ago, the buildings just as pulverized, the territory every bit as devastated.

Some hold out hope that Hamas can put up a better fight than it did the last time around, by using more sophisticated rocketry.

“Before, they were just hitting us. Now we can hit them, too,” said Mohana, referring to the long-range rockets that have struck near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. “Israel didn’t expect this after the last war.”

But with Israel’s Iron Dome defense shield shooting down most Palestinian rockets, and with its vastly superior military on full display, few expect this conflict to end any better than the last one.

Even as official circles in Washington and Cairo buzzed with word of a cease-fire Tuesday, families in northern Gaza piled onto horse carts and fled to Gaza City, certain that a ground invasion was imminent.

Just before sunset, Israeli planes dropped leaflets warning residents of northern Gaza to evacuate “for [their] own safety.” The leaflets sparked panic and anger.

“What’s going to happen is they’re going to destroy the houses,” shouted Abdullah Mohamed Atta, a fruit farmer who sought shelter with his family at the U.N. Preparatory Boys School.

As darkness fell over Gaza and promises of a cease-fire turned out to be premature, Israeli navy warships and fighter jets picked up the pace. Late Tuesday, a missile strike on a target in Gaza City blew out windows at three nearby hotels that were packed with journalists.

Gaza’s legislature and the Suraya, a major security headquarters building, had been early targets in Cast Lead. As of dawn Tuesday, they were yet to be bombed, but shells found them Tuesday night.

The Islamic National Bank was not targeted four years ago because it didn’t exist, residents said. Hamas set up the institution to fund its operations amid international sanctions. An Israeli missile ripped through the bank in the early hours of Tuesday.

Just after the attack, Selim al-Sik gathered up his 12-member family from their flat across the street and fled to a relative’s home a few blocks away. “Every time we say God will make things better,” he said with a weak smile. “But then God makes things worse.”