Gaza City – Gaza’s usually bustling streets are almost completely deserted, as a series of explosions rock the city, punctuated by the distant swish of rockets being launched from various locations across the Strip.
Hamas security forces, whose presence is usually intensified during a state of alert, were nowhere to be seen during recent Israeli attacks, and policemen have abandoned their posts in all but a few areas.
Outside his three-storey apartment building in Tel el-Hawa, a residential neighbourhood ravaged by Israel in its 2008-09 offensive against Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, Ammar El Banna, inspected the shattered windows and dented body of his car.
The night before, an Israeli F16 warplane bombed an abandoned house close by, reducing it to rubble and causing varying degrees of damage to every building on the block.
El Banna, a 30-year-old public sector employee, his wife, two young children and 16 other members of his extended family were injured with shrapnel.
“We could hear bomb blasts all around us, but when the missile hit it was completely unexpected,” El Banna said.
“I took my wife and children to the hospital. My neighbours and friends were there with their families, my brothers were there with their children,” he said.
“All the women and children went straight from the hospital to stay with family. We have evacuated the neighbourhood.”
On Wednesday night, the IDF launched Operation Pillar of Cloud against Gaza, following days of Israeli airstrikes across the Strip and dozens of rockets fired at Israel by armed Palestinian groups.
While the recent escalation is frequently attributed to the assassination of Hamas Military leader Ahmad el-Jaabari on Wednesday afternoon, the violence started with the killing of 13-year-old Ahmed Abu Daqqa on November 8, following a brief Israeli incursion into Southeast Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated that the military operation is aimed at “hitting Hamas strategic targets precisely” and that Israel will “avoid harming civilians”.
Israel’s attacks on Hamas-affiliated targets were accompanied with a barrage of artillery fire and airstrikes, which damaged or destroyed houses, cars and agricultural land.
Recounting the events of the past 24 hours spent at Gaza’s Al Shifa hospital, Dr Ayman El Sahbany, Head of Emergency, shed light on what he described as the deliberate targeting of civilian objects.
“Between Wednesday and Thursday night, we received 15 martyrs and 140 injuries, 35 were children, 25 were women, 15 were elderly, and the rest were teenagers,” Dr El Sahbany said.
“As a doctor, I tell you that not one resistance fighter came through the doors of this hospital. Every one of these people was a civilian.”
News of an Egyptian mediated truce – first announced four days before the Israeli operation began – resurfaced several times in the first 24 hours of the assault.
But the firing of long-range missiles by a Palestinian group at major Israeli cities Tel-Aviv and Yaffa was followed by renewed Israeli threats of a ground invasion and several huge airstrikes in the heart of Gaza city.
Among Gazans, fear and apprehension of a full-scale ground invasion is replaced with periods of optimism and assurance at every lull.
Several times a day (or night), heavy bombardment gives way to total calm and empty skies. Wary Gazans go about their business or venture out to survey the damage.
But while the periodic calm is often deceptive, staying indoors could be no less dangerous than standing in the street during a round of missile fire.
Jihad Al Mashharrawi, 27, a BBC cameraman, lives in a small house in southeast Gaza. He was at work when he heard of the death of his sister-in-law and his 11-month-old son Omar at their home.
As the family prepared to walk out of the door during a period of calm, a missile smashed through the roof, decapitating Al Mashharrawi’s sister-in-law and exploding in the small living space.
Omar’s charred body was found next to his uncle, who sustained severe burns on 65 percent of his body, killing him.
Al Mashharrawi’s other son, Ali, survived miraculously after a piece of shrapnel lodged itself in his head.
“Who were they targeting? We don’t have families of resistance fighters in the neighbourhood, or even people who work for the government. People here are struggling to live, taxi drivers and such”
-Jihad Al Mashharrawi, BBC cameraman,
Sitting outside his home greeting mourners, Al Mashharrawi described receiving the devastating news: “My neighbour called. He was screaming that my home is wreaked and my family is dead.”
“Who were they targeting? We don’t have families of resistance fighters in the neighbourhood, or even people who work for the government. People here are struggling to live, taxi drivers and such. It was impossible to imagine… my son…” Al Mashharrawi said.
Trailing off, Al Mashharrawi shed silent tears as he buried his face in Ali’s sweater.
What he did not know was that medical sources suspect that, as in the case of Cast Lead, Israel is apparently using unconventional weapons in its ongoing offensive. The type and scale of burn injuries indicated the use of unidentified incinerating components.
“We are not familiar with these components. We don’t have the facilities to investigate them, and of course, there is no international oversight of the weapons Israel uses against Gaza, even children,” said Dr El Sahbany, who had several patients in the burn Unit, including Al Mashharrawi’s brother.
Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon stated: “Israel will continue carrying out operations until terrorists in Gaza cry for a ceasefire.”
Meanwhile, various Palestinian groups, operating separately it seems, are increasing rocket fire on Israeli towns, cities and settlements.
Teetering on the edge of an open war, neither side is looking to de-escalate.
Before evacuating for the night, El Banna, representing many from Gaza, summed up his thoughts: “If the resistance factions don’t escalate, then the people will, because this is destruction of an entire population.”
“After seeing my children injured, my home damaged, my car destroyed my life disrupted, of course, I will want to respond with force.”