Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip – The bodies of dozens of Palestinians were pulled from the ruins of bombed-out homes in Gaza on Saturday during a brief humanitarian truce that top diplomats meeting in Paris urged Israel and Palestinian faction Hamas to extend.
The death toll from the 19-day Israeli offensive on Gaza reached 1,032 on Saturday, according to the Gaza health ministry, as Israel extended the initial 12-hour ceasefire by four hours – shortly before it was due to end.
But the extended ceasefire, until midnight local time (21:00 GMT), was broken shortly after 8pm (17:00 GMT), with the Israeli military announcing three mortar rounds had been fired from Gaza into southern Israel. There was no damage from the rocket fire, and media reports said the military did not regard the incident as a major violation.
Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from Gaza, said she had been told there was no agreement among Palestinian factions in Gaza on extending the ceasefire.
“We’ve had it confirmed that the al-Qassam Brigades (the military wing of Hamas) has fired rockets at Israel. What they’re saying is a four-hour ceasefire at night doesn’t serve any purpose and the people will agree with them,” Dekker said.
More than halfway into the earlier truce, medics said 85 bodies had been retrieved from buildings ground into rubble across the Gaza Strip. Thirty-seven Israeli soldiers have also been killed, along with two Israeli civilians and a Thai foreign worker.
Palestinians ventured onto Gaza’s streets after the truce took effect, some eager to check on homes they had fled, others to stock up on food and other items while it was still safe to do so.
In many places they found astonishing devastation: apartment buildings levelled, entire blocks of homes completely wiped out by relentless Israeli bombardment.
For Sareya al-Massri, the truce provided a rare window to return home to collect clothes for her 10 children. “Nothing is left. We lost everything,” said al-Massri, wiping away tears with a white tissue as she surveyed what was once her three-storey home in Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza.
Al-Massri fled her home last week under intense Israeli shelling. She is now living at Gaza City’s Beach refugee camp with her husband, children and grandchildren. The family’s house sits in ruins after it was hit by an Israeli F-16 missile. “My husband doesn’t yet know… I don’t know how I’m going to tell him,” she said.
Across Beit Hanoun, debris blocked the streets, while piles of rubbish and rotten vegetables spread out over the market square. Two dead horses were lying on the sidewalk.
“My home! My home!” yelled Iftekhar Abu Ouda, 46, as she ran down an alley to inspect her home. She burst into tears after seeing that two Israeli shells had hit the roof and back exterior wall. “I have been working for 23 years and my husband as well to build this home,” she said. “This is not a life. What did we do to Israel in order to destroy our home?”
Most of the town’s 40,000 residents fled on Wednesday, when Israeli artillery shelling intensified and reached the centre of the city. An Israeli air strike hit a United Nations-run school, killing at least 16 displaced Palestinians and injuring 150 others.
“When we were gathering, a shell landed in the playground… another shell followed. We ran out, but a third shell hit the street as if they want to keep us inside,” said Ra’isa Abu Harbeed, 33, who witnessed the bombing.
The home was bombed in the morning before the ceasefire... as if they wanted to cause as much destruction as possible before the ceasefire.
Harbeed returned to the school when the temporary ceasefire took effect to collect some of her family’s belongings, before returning to another shelter in Jabaliya, a refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip. “My husband was injured, my brother-in-law lost his leg… there were many dead and I saw a baby among them,” she said, as she collected clothes.
The hallways between classrooms were littered with blood stained mats, food and clothes. Pieces of heavy shrapnel lay outside, while a playground was marked by a black crater, where a shell landed.
At the entrance to the city, civil defence workers were digging through the rubble of a building. The first recovered body – a young man named Tamer Nasser – was found and rushed onto a stretcher to the ambulance. The second body followed a few minutes later.
A resident said these were the sixth and seventh bodies to be recovered from the house since the morning.
“The home was bombed in the morning before the ceasefire,” said Ahmed Shabat, a neighbour, as he watched the scene. “Most of the damage here is fresh, as if they wanted to cause as much destruction as possible before the ceasefire.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, met with counterparts from Europe and the Middle East in Paris, who urged that the ceasefire be extended.
“We all call on parties to extend the humanitarian ceasefire,” France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters after meeting Kerry and counterparts from Britain, Germany, Italy, Qatar and Turkey, as well as an EU representative.
Hamas and Israel agreed to the “humanitarian window” in the early hours of Saturday morning, after a US proposal for a seven-day truce during which the two sides would negotiate a longer-term deal was rejected by Israel’s security cabinet on Friday night.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Hamas leader Osama Hamdan said that any long-term ceasefire “has to result in lifting the siege on Gaza, opening the border crossings, and [for Palestinians in Gaza] to have free access to the world”.