Surrounded by rubble once again, shaken Gazans struggle to find hope for a brighter future

They are traumatized after 11 days of bombardments. Their community is filled with massive piles of rubble. But, as Margaret Evans reports, many Gazans will still say the cyclical wars between Hamas and Israel are not even the hardest part about living there.

'My family is traumatized,' says business owner and father of 9

A woman surveys the destruction caused last week by Israeli airstrikes on Al-Wehda Street in Gaza City. A ceasefire between Israel and the Islamist militant group Hamas went into effect last Friday. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

Abdul Raheem Abdul Malek and his sons are digging up the road just in front of the family business on Al-Wehda Street in Gaza City, trying to get down deep enough to get a look at the six-storey building's foundation. 

They're worried it's no longer structurally sound.

Last week, in the early hours of May 16, Israeli warplanes destroyed three nearby buildings on the thoroughfare, home to a number of residential blocks with commercial premises at street level. 

Two of those buildings were just 40 metres away from the store where Abdul Malek sells basic equipment for restaurants, such as cookers and food display cases. He and his extended family live on the floors above the store.

Some family members were knocked off their feet by the force of the blasts on the street, he said. 

Al-Wehda Street is lined with residential apartments and businesses, some of which are now in ruins. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"My family is traumatized. I have a small son who doesn't talk [since then]," he said.

"Everyone was screaming and running around the house. We didn't know where to go or what to do. Things were falling down from the roof onto our heads."

In the days since the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas went into effect last Friday, Gazans have emerged to view the extent of the damage on streets like Al-Wehda, some lamenting that Gaza has yet to recover from the last war in 2014.   

Abdul Raheem Abdul Malek, 67, owner of the Ramallah Company, a hotel and restaurant kitchen supply store in Gaza City, says his family was traumatized by the airstrikes near their home. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

The Israeli military says it doesn't deliberately target civilians and issued a statement saying it had struck Hamas's underground infrastructure. 

"Hamas intentionally locates its terrorist infrastructure under civilian houses, exposing them to danger," the statement said. "The underground foundations collapsed, causing the civilian housing above them to collapse, causing unintended casualties." 

Whatever the cause, people's homes became their tombs.

In one building, 22 extended members of a single family were killed. In another, the head of internal medicine at Al-Shifa Hospital, Dr. Ayman Abu al-Ouf, was killed along with 12 members of his family. 

Abu al-Ouf was one of the physicians leading Gaza City's fight against COVID-19. His parents, his wife and two children were also killed. A third child survived but is now an orphan.

Among the casualties of the conflict were two respected doctors, who are remembered with posters among the rubble. Dr. Ayman Abu al-Ouf, top image, was killed on hard-hit Al-Wehda Street in Gaza City (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Abdul Malek knows he's lucky. His family, which includes five sons and four daughters, is safe. But he remains in shock, he said, more distracted than angry.

"I don't know what to do," he said. 

"Imagine when you sit in one room and your family in another. And when the explosion happened, I saw them in front of me panicking. They were very scared. And I'm still seeing the shock of their faces. Coming to my room. I can't forget that."

Ahseea Ahmed, head of protection and neutrality in Gaza for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, says 8,000 people displaced by the recent fighting are now homeless. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Gazans are well known for their resilience. But that resilience can only go so far, says Ahseea Ahmed, head of protection and neutrality in Gaza for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

"There is a trauma that at this stage, many of us, including myself, have difficulty expressing," said Ahmed, a Canadian who has worked in other conflict zones, including Syria and Afghanistan. 

"The intensity and the relentlessness of the terror raining down from the skies and the feeling that absolutely no one was safe."

WATCH | CBC's Margaret Evans surveys the damage from an airstrike on Al-Wehda Street: 

On the ground in Gaza in the aftermath of a deadly airstrike

1 year ago
Duration 2:50
CBC's Margaret Evans takes us through ground zero of a Gaza street where an Israeli airstrike destroyed residential buildings and killed dozens of Palestinians on May 16, days before a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamist group that controls Gaza, took effect.

At least 254 Palestinians, including at least 66 children, were killed in the 11-day conflict; one Israeli soldier and 12 civilians in Israel were killed, including two children, Reuters reported this week.

Ahmed said 56,000 people displaced by the fighting sought shelter in more than 50 UN schools in Gaza and that 8,000 remain homeless.

There are more than two million people living in the Gaza Strip, a narrow strip of sand measuring 41 kilometres by 12 kilometres at its widest point.

Kids outside a United Nations-run school turned shelter, where adults have been trying to lift the spirits of Gaza's displaced children after 11 days of bombardments. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Blockade hasn't stopped weapons

Many Gazans will still say the cyclical wars between Hamas and Israel (there have been four big ones since the end of 2009) are not the hardest part about living there.

Mohammed Tafish is one of them. He describes life in Gaza as a "slow death."

The 36-year-old father of two stopped the CBC's crew on the street while it was filming a parade of Hamas militants in Gaza City a day after the ceasefire was announced.

"Here, especially in Gaza, the Palestinian people are very poor," he said. "They are dying gradually day after day."

Mohammed Tafish says the Palestinian people deserve better leadership. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Israel, with Egypt's help, has imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip since 2007, when the militant Islamist group Hamas wrested power from the rival Fatah party. 

Israel said the blockade was necessary to stop smuggled Iranian weapons, as well as any materials that could be used to make weapons, from reaching Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups sworn to Israel's destruction.

Fourteen years later, Hamas is still clearly managing to get weapons in or to make them itself. Israel said more than 4,300 rockets were fired at the country by Hamas and other militant groups from the Gaza Strip during the recent conflict, most of which were intercepted by Israel's missile defence system.

Meanwhile, Palestinians say, another generation of Gazans is being condemned to a horizon-less future. 

Unemployment in Gaza sits at around 50 per cent, and over 80 per cent of the population is dependent on aid, according to aid agencies. "Nothing left to lose" is a common refrain among residents. 

A boy helps load rubble into a donkey cart on a residential street in central Gaza. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Israel points out that it pulled its settlements out of Gaza in 2005, but it has maintained control of all land, border and sea access. 

Tafish says he also blames the failure of Hamas and Fatah leaders to stand united, saying they care more about their own fight for power than the Palestinian people. 

"My message to [the] two governments is to put their hands together. We're used to facing war. No problem. Bombing, no problem for us. But we need good leaders."

'Their life is unbearable'

Many people on the street in Gaza said they do believe the world is once again watching what's happening with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after years of neglect, and not just because of the recent fighting. 

They say growing and persistent protests by Palestinians against efforts by Israeli settler groups to evict Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem have also captured the world's attention. 

In the hours and days after the ceasefire reached last week, many Gaza residents finally ventured out to survey the damage. In this photo, a family stands in front of what is left of the building that housed the offices of The Associated Press and Al Jazeera. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"I'm observing the world's reactions in Canada, in Australia and in America, in Europe and in the Arab region," said Mosheer Amer, professor of linguistics at the Islamic University in Gaza.

"And even on the Palestinian level, there is an increasing awareness that this is a problem of the Israelis' insistence on imposing this occupation." 

Amer's own family originally comes from a village near Ashkelon, just across the border with Gaza in what is today Israel. They fled to Gaza during the war that followed Israel's declaration of independence in 1948. 

"You call it a one-state solution. You call it a five-state solution. I don't know. But we have to address the issues," Amer said. "People here, Palestinians everywhere, they have real issues. They have real grievances. They have a problem with the occupation. Their life is unbearable.

"The missing element in all of this is the lack of enough pressure from the international community on Israel." 

WATCH | Abdul Raheem Abdul Malek's son Ibrahim describes an airstrike he lived through:

Ibrahim Abdul Malek, 23, describes Israeli airstrike near his Gaza home

1 year ago
Duration 1:42
Ibrahim Abdul Malek describes the deadly explosion from an Israeli airstrike near his home and family's business in Gaza in the early hours of May 16.

The name of Abdul Malek's shop on Al-Wehda Street in Gaza City is the Ramallah Company, an odd one for a shop in Gaza, given Ramallah is a city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

But Abdul Malek says he and his brother chose the name back around 1993 or '94, when the Oslo Accords were being negotiated and included the creation of the Palestinian Authority, with the late Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat as president, to be headquartered in Ramallah.

Back then, people still believed in a two-state solution as the best option for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. That was a long time ago.   

The basic hopes for life that people like Abdul Malek cherish, though, haven't changed.   

"It should be lived in tranquillity, to smile, to visit our loved ones. Not to hide from explosions."

WATCH | Assessing the damage in Gaza: 

Israel-Hamas ceasefire holds as Gaza inspects the damage

1 year ago
Duration 2:42
People in Gaza are still assessing the damage caused by days of rocket fire exchanges between Israel and Palestinian militants, which ended with a ceasefire late last week.


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.