When I called Hani, at around 11 o’clock this morning, he was driving through the ruins of Gaza city. 'They have stopped bombing us - but you would not believe what we have left - the sight of our city,' he says, sounding exhausted, relieved and depressed all at the same time. 'It is just rubble everywhere, and there are bodies in the rubble.' He tells me he’s on his way back to northern Gaza, to see if his house in Beit Lahia is still standing.
The Israeli 'ceasefire' started at 2 am this morning. Hamas has accepted the ceasefire, saying it is giving the Israeli military one week to completely withdraw from Gaza. Apparently there have been clashes already between the Israeli military and Palestinian fighters in the northern Gaza Strip, but my friends and colleagues in Gaza city says the city is now 'peaceful - thank God.'
Early this morning, medical personnel started the exhausting task of digging reeking corpses from the rubble across Gaza. By lunchtime they had already unearthed 95 bodies, many already partly decomposed, to add to the some 1,200 people who have been killed in the Gaza Strip during these last bloody three weeks.
Israel has consistently claimed it has been targeting only Hamas and other 'terrorists' inside Gaza, not civilians. But the Gazans I speak to are adamant most of the victims have been civilians, many of them shot, dismembered or buried alive whilst cowering inside their own houses. At least 260 children have been killed during this military operation - like fourteen year old Issa Mohammed Abu Jarad, who was dismembered by an Israeli missile fired from an unpiloted drone while he was collecting firewood for his family early on Friday morning, 16 January in Rafah, southern Gaza.
Hours later, an Israeli helicopter fired a missile at the house of 37-year-old 'Eissa 'Abdul Hadi al-Batran, who lives in al-Boreij refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip. The missile struck the house full force, killing Eissa’s thirty year old wife, Manal, and their five children - Islam, Iman, Ihsan, Bilal, and three year old 'Izziddin.
One of the unforgettable characteristics of this Israeli military onslaught against Gaza has been the number of families who have been wiped out. Twenty seven members of the Al-Samouni family from Zaytoun in eastern Gaza City were killed by the Israeli military on 6 January, including ten children, when Israeli troops fired missiles into their house at closer range, despite knowing the house was being occupied by more than 50 civilians. The survivors, who included eight children, were then locked in the house for three days with their dead parents and relatives, and denied food and water until the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) finally secured permission from Israeli troops to evacuate them.
My friends tell me Gaza is changed forever, grief-stricken and ruined, and still there is no immediate prospect of the borders opening so people can be released from this jail. 'We have lost everything,' Mohammed, one of my friends in Jabaliya refugee camp, tells me over the phone. 'My whole neighbourhood has been destroyed. But tell them, tell the world, we do not want food or money - we just want our life back, and we want our freedom.'