KHUZAA, Gaza — People are crowding the streets of Gaza City and fishermen are back on the sea as Gazans seize the opportunity of a shaky three-day ceasefire to try to return to something like normal life. More than a quarter of Gaza’s 1.8 million people have been displaced by the fighting, so when Israeli troops withdrew on Tuesday morning, many Gazans clogged the roads, heading back to their neighborhoods to get some idea if anything is left in the places they fled.
The war has killed over 1,800 Palestinians, mostly civilians, hundreds of them children, and 67 Israelis, all but three of them soldiers. It has gone on for nearly a month with such ferocity that both Israel and Hamas, nearing exhaustion, have been looking for ways to claim victory and end the fighting.
So there is general optimism in Gaza that this is the beginning of the end. But for the residents of Khuzaa, rocked by the trauma of near complete Israeli destruction and a hideous mass execution, there is a sense that this is only the end of the beginning.
Despite the Israeli withdrawal from an intended buffer zone that includes 44 percent of Gaza’s territory, many in Khuzaa can no longer imagine continuing to live in this town on the eastern Gaza border with Israel. For Palestinians, whose national identity is built around the notion of strength expressed as steadfast attachment to the land, the broken will of those in Khuzaa is a major psychological defeat at the hands of Israel’s military.
Although Israel’s army has pulled back for now, the gates of Hell they opened here created the conditions for a buffer zone maintained by despair. And this is not the first time.
“We have documented a series of war crimes in Khuzaa over the years and the result should be criminal prosecution, not residents fleeing in fear,” says Bill Van Esveld, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. The rights group has recorded systematic Israeli attacks on the town since Israel’s 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza. Van Esvald depicts a bombarded community where residents in 2009 were shot by the army while holding white flags or were attacked with white phosphorous.
Now there are again reports and investigations into war crimes committed against Khuzaa’s residents in this ongoing conflict. HRW has gathered evidence that between July 23 and 25 Israeli soldiers directly and intentionally fired on civilians who were unable to flee the fighting in the town, and it has begun investigating the summary execution of at least six people whose bodies were piled in the bathroom of one house, as reported by The Daily Beast on August 1.
When I returned to Khuzaa on Sunday, August 3, the bombed-out shell of a town had been ground further into the dust during two more days of Israeli shelling. Kids who had nothing left to play with waved around Israeli bullet clips left behind by the army. In one of the few houses still partially standing, the kids lead me on a tour of where the Israelis took up positions. Holes had been made in walls to fit machine guns; all the furniture and the floors had been destroyed. “Israeli Military Industry” cartridges were scattered around and there was Hebrew spray painting on the walls. Tin cans and an Israeli porn magazine littered the floor.
This had been an outpost in the middle of a protracted battle, it seems, as Hamas guerrillas tried to prove that they would fight to the last man, in a desperate bid to halt Israel’s advance.
Outside the house, some people sat on the piles of rock in front of their now exposed living rooms and bedrooms. Others were grabbing what they needed as quickly as possible and leaving amid the bone-chilling quiet. There was no shelling this time, but there was the hum of watchful drones. Few people stuck around any longer than necessary.
The soldiers’ outpost is a block from the site of the massacre and it is the same IMI bullet casings that roll around like loose change on the floors of both houses. The home that played host to the killing of people who have yet to be identified is now abandoned. The smell of death still emanates from the bathroom and chickens go back and forth through the open door. Among the shell cases ground into the blackened, burned and decomposed remains on the first floor of the house, a grenade pin sticks out from under a table.
Next door, Mohammad Abu Najar and his father Yousef gather their belongings. Mohammad was one of the first to see the bodies and shows me a photo on his phone of corpses slumped in a line in front of a wall riddled with bullet holes. Other, bloated and decomposing corpses are piled on top of them.
Neither Mohammad nor his father have any intention of moving back to Khuzaa. They are staying in the nearby city of Khan Younis for the moment; they don’t know where they will go next.
“My father will burn this all down,” says Mohammad waving his hand over the two homes that share a courtyard. “Who could live in a place where such a terrible crime has happened.”