THEY found one dismembered body dangling from the edge of a partially destroyed room on the second floor of a building gutted by an Israeli tank shell.
The stench of rotting flesh that filled the narrow streets told the inhabitants of Khuza’a that more bodies lay close by. Digging through mounds of sandy earth with his bare hands, Mohammed Tahir thought he had found another corpse from the smell of death on his fingertips.
Hundreds of families fled this neighbourhood six days ago when Israeli tanks surrounded their homes and began shelling .
Airstrikes flattened entire houses, killing those who remained. But yesterday a truce between Hamas, the Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, and Israel allowed residents a brief chance to return.
They used the time to collect their dead. Bodies had been left to decompose in the stifling Mediterranean heat for days as fighting spread through the area.
“It’s a race against time. We’re worried that we won’t be able to find them and even if we do the Israelis are near the cemetery, so we’ll have to leave them in the hospital fridge,” said Tahir, a 36-year-old farmer as he watched a bulldozer sift through the rubble of a crater where a two-storey home once stood. “We’re worried the truce will end before we can collect them all.”
As he spoke, a boy on a bicycle shouted that Israeli tanks and soldiers were advancing towards us. A plume of sand rose menacingly from behind a line of low trees 150 yards away, marking the tanks’ movement along the edge of this village in southern Gaza.
One local said he believed the Israelis had attacked the town because the entrance to a Hamas tunnel that burrows all the way into Israel may be hidden here. “We need to hurry,” Tahir said.
Across Gaza, residents returned to areas ravaged by 19 days of fighting.
In some parts of the densely populated neighbourhood of Al-Shujaiya, close to the border with Israel, almost every other building has been levelled by Israel’s blistering aerial bombardment.
Hundreds of homes across the tiny territory have been destroyed; thousands more partially so.
Locals in Al-Shujaiya picked their way carefully through the twisted metal skeletons of the neighbourhood’s bombed-out buildings to poke among the vast heaps of rubble in a desperate search for their possessions.
Mattresses could be seen sandwiched between floors that had caved in on each other. One boy found a sheep he had lost 10 days earlier when he fled. The animal could barely stand so he heaved it onto a horse-drawn cart, pleased that he had salvaged something from his trip back. Others were not so lucky.
“We haven’t found a shred of clothing,” shouted Kayed al- Zaza. “There’s nothing left of my house. We’ll have to clear up the rubble and put up a tent.”
The stench of death was never far away: by midday yesterday 46 bodies from Al-Shujaiya alone were carried into Al-Shifa, Gaza’s main hospital. Flies swarmed above the blankets that covered the bodies. Many more remain buried beneath the heaps of rubble.
So far more than 1,000 Palestinians have died and at least 6,000 have been injured in the conflict. Many of the victims are civilians.
Among yesterday’s victims was the 15-year-old grandson of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas.
Israel has lost 40 soldiers as its troops seek to destroy Hamas’s tunnels and its stockpile of rockets, which continue to screech through the sky towards Israel. So far Hamas has launched about 2,700 rockets, many of which have been shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome defence system.
In recent days Israel has threatened to “significantly” expand its operations in Gaza. If it does, the plight of its already beleaguered population of 1.8m will grow worse.
Little moves here. Some cars and the occasional donkey- drawn cart brave the bombardment to weave their way through the narrow streets. More than 100,000 people have fled their homes since the conflict began. Israeli missiles, whose dull thuds reverberate throughout the enclave day and night, have cleaved open multistorey apartment blocks, littering the streets with glass and rubble.
Day-long power cuts have left entire neighbourhoods with no electricity or running water. Gas supplies are low and some families have only flour left to cook with.
From the sea, artillery shells are fired from Israeli warships day and night, armed drones whine menacingly in the skies above, and on the ground, Israeli soldiers and tanks encircle Gaza along the length and breadth of its land borders.
“We are living in a jail and they are controlling us,” said the father of a Hamas fighter who was killed by Israeli troops last week as he tried to enter Israel through a Hamas tunnel.
Dozens of mosques, schools, hospitals and apartment blocks have been hit in Israeli airstrikes as the country pursues Hamas’s leadership, many of whom have gone into hiding.
Nowhere feels safe. On Thursday three shells struck a school run by the UN, killing 15 people who were huddled together in a playground as they waited for buses to take them to safety.
Hours after the school attack, a one-year-old girl, whose mother lost a leg in the shelling, writhed in agony on a bed in Al-Shifa hospital as doctors examined the shard of shrapnel lodged in her tiny back.
In the bed next to her 12-year-old Oday Abu Oda lay on his back on a stretcher soaked with his own blood. Shrapnel had smashed his left arm so badly that doctors said they were considering whether to amputate it.
In rasping gasps he screamed, “I need my father. Where’s my father? Where is my father?” His cousin leant over him, trying in vain to comfort him. No one could bring themselves to tell the boy that the shelling had killed his father.
As the death toll mounts, Gaza’s gravediggers said they are opening up family plots and burying the newly dead on top of their ancestors.
Forced to sleep rough to escape the Israeli bombs, Hawan Harizeen and her five children had not taken a shower for six days.
The day before the truce the 36-year-old mother waited until the Israeli airstrikes subsided before walking back to her mother-in-law’s home in Al-Shujaiya. There she could quickly shower and wash her children before returning to her shelter in the stairwell of an apartment block.
But as the young family crossed a previously quiet street a bullet pierced the forehead of her eight-year-old son Walid whose hand she was holding. Harizeen’s young daughters screamed as Walid’s body slumped onto the pavement beside them.
In Gaza’s main hospital, Walid’s stocky father, Said Harizeen, crumpled his face in agony when he saw his son’s body for the first time, the blood still seeping from the exit wound in the back of his head.
“What did he do to Israel?” he wept as his wife fainted at his feet.
Stories of death are so all-pervasive that while a young woman was speaking through tears about the loss of her two parents, a frail 60-year-old woman shuffled up to her and said: “You should be grateful that you only lost five of your family. I lost 14 of mine — my children and grandchildren. They’re dead in an airstrike. You should thank God.”
Despite the large number of civilian casualties, Hamas’s popularity, which was waning before the war, appears to be growing the longer the conflict goes on.
Its defiance in the face of Israel’s superior military power, and its conditions for a ceasefire — the lifting of the blockade on Gaza’s air, sea and land ports — chime well with the people of Gaza. If any of its goals are achieved, its popularity will soar.
“All Palestinians are together when they see the massacres and the bloodshed the Israelis are causing,” said Faisal Abu Shahla, a senior official in the Fatah party, Hamas’s rival. “We all want the same thing as Hamas does. We agree with what they are doing. Who among us is happy with the siege?”
Islamist factions fighting alongside Hamas are adamant that the war will continue until Israel agrees to lift the blockade, imposed eight years ago in response to Hamas’s rise to power in the Mediterranean enclave.
“Everyone here is slowly dying anyway so it doesn’t matter if we continue to fight,” said Abu Mujahid, spokesman for a militant alliance of Islamist factions in Gaza.
“We can do this for months and months. We’ve already shown what we can do. Look at the tunnels Hamas has built. We don’t have the technology of Israel but we have dug the soil with our bare hands to defend our people.”