Gaza City: Counting the Dead After the Ceasefire

The first day of the ceasefire in the Gaza Strip produced the highest one-day body count of the war since December 27th, when Israel launched its first air strikes. And yet, for the most part, the ceasefire actually held.

That's because Gazans were finally free to venture into the hardest-hit areas, and as they dug through the rubble of their homes and public buildings, they discovered victims they hadn't been able to reach before—and in some cases hadn't even known were there. At least 98 bodies were brought to Gaza City's main Shifa Hospital, according to Dr. Ayman Rashid, the emergency room surgeon in charge there today.

The situation was the most dramatic in Gaza City, which Western journalists reached for the first time today.  Israel had banned journalists from crossing into Gaza strip from Israel since the start of the conflict. Late last week, some managed to enter Gaza from Egypt, but were still prevented by Israeli tank barricades from reaching the city itself, which suffered the most intense fighting and destruction of the three-week-long Israeli campaign. Today the Beach Road opened, and journalists arrived in Gaza City to find scenes of what John Ging, the local head of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, described in an interview as "destruction on an unimaginable scale."

Parts of the densely populated city looked like Grozny on a bad day; one neighborhood, eastern Jabalia, had nearly every building reduced to a pile of rubble, roofs flattened to the ground—at least 50 of them in close proximity along several blocks. Even relatively untouched neighborhoods had signs of heavy machine gun fire tattooed up and down the walls, with the occasional gaping hole from a tank shell or rocket. Many Gaza City residents themselves were astonished, having been pinned down inside their homes or places of refuge for much of the conflict. One likened the destroyed buildings along the Beach Road to a "tsunami." That was hyperbolic, and indeed there were also many areas that were largely untouched, with just here and there a building that had been selectively destroyed.

As people returned to sift through the ruins of their homes for valuables and whatever else they could scavenge, many were in for a shock. Imad Eid, a journalist for al Manar TV from Beirut, for instance, returned to his home not far from the Shifa hospital and was astonished to find in the ruins a 14-year-old girl, Amiri Fateh Tirim, badly wounded but alive. She had apparently taken refuge there after Eid's own family evacuated; she told him all 11 members of her immediate family had been killed in an airstrike.  Unable to move, she had survived there for four days by drinking condensation off the rubble. Some residents had thought their homes were still intact, only to return to find them leveled by IDF demolition teams, or blown up by bombs and rockets, or hammered by tank shells. "Olmert claims this war is not against civilians," said Muhammed Abd Rabo, who says his family was given five minutes warning to leave before their building was blown up by a jet bomber. Two family members were too slow and were killed, he said.

Every public building of any sort associated with the Palestinian government of Hamas has been thoroughly destroyed. All the police stations, ministry buildings, homes of Hamas officials, even minor facilities like a community conflict resolution office—essentially the entire infrastructure of the Palestinian government in Gaza. Even the Palestinian Children's Parliament building in Rafah, a civics project for students, was blasted into chunks of concrete and twisted steel reinforcing rods. There were many other targets with no apparent rationale. The relatively new, $7 million campus of the American School was completely demolished in air strikes. The Al Quds Hospital in downtown Gaza City, run by the Red Crescent Society, was hit by a bomb and set afire. Part of the massive shell that purportedly did it now sits on hospital director general Khalid Judah's bookshelf. Although the hospital building survived major structural damage, the fire forced the evacuation of 500 patients to other hospitals in the middle of the night, many of them leaving hooked up to medical machinery; a baby was even rolled out in an incubator. "I can guarantee you, no one used this building to fire at the Israelis," Judah said.

Elsewhere, five United Nations facilities were, according to Ging, deliberately targeted, not counting many others that suffered collateral damage from air strikes nearby. In none of those cases, he said, was there any evidence that the U.N. facilities were being used to attack the Israelis, as Israel Defense Forces spokesmen claimed. Ging said he had direct liaison contacts with ranking IDF officers, who disputed their own spokesmen, acknowledging to him that no U.N. facilities had been used to attack the army.

Ging said there may have been instances elsewhere where Hamas militants used civilians as human shields, but that still doesn't justify the level of destruction. "The laws of war set out very clearly the proportional use of force and then the duty of care [to survivors]. The use of human shields may well be the case but that carries with it a duty of care; that doesn't release you from your responsibility to them." Ging called for an independent, international investigation of actions on both sides of the conflict. "This whole thing was a test of our humanity. Nowhere was safe for these poor people. We failed all of those who died," he said. "Now we have to restore their faith in the rule of law, it has to be proven to the Palestinian people that there will be accountability for atrocities…otherwise we will just push them toward the extremists."

At Shifa Hospital, the parking lot was jammed with ambulances ferrying the dead to its morgue. There were also five ambulances that were badly mangled from air strikes, including one in which four doctors had been killed, according to Dr. Rashid. Sitting at the triage desk he was, by his own admission, a nervous wreck, unable to sit still, his knees twitching at an alarming rate as he rattled off the day's statistics. Of the 98 bodies brought in, 60 percent were women or children, and 10 percent elderly victims, Rashid said. The only other day with a higher death toll was the first day of the conflict, which caught many people by surprise and unprepared. "This was a very very very bad day," Dr. Rashid said. "Too many people were coming in with psychic trauma after going and finding bodies under the rubble." One man, he said, went home to discover the mangled body parts of five relatives he didn't know had still been there. Updated casualty counts from Gaza's other half-dozen hospitals were not yet available today, so the final death toll—now more than 1,300—may climb still higher as the rubble of Gaza gives up the remainder of its victims.