Om Yazan Qodeih struggled to hold back the tears as she surveyed the wreckage of her home in southern Gaza destroyed by an Israeli strike. All she could salvage from the broken concrete were a few bits of children’s clothes and a cooking gas canister.
“Everything has been destroyed and we couldn’t pull out anything from under the rubble,” said Qodeih as she was finally overcome by tears. “People, buildings and even trees have been crushed.”
As soon as a four-day truce agreed by Israel and Hamas began on Friday, Qodeih dashed to her Khuza’a neighbourhood, which is east of the city of Khan Younis.
The temporary halt in the fighting has brought some respite to Palestinians who have endured 48 days of Israeli bombardment. On Friday they returned to their shattered neighbourhoods and tried to secure food and fuel. The truce agreement includes provisions for a significant increase in humanitarian supplies entering the besieged territory.
Qodeih and her husband Ziad had hoped their family could leave the UN shelter where they had been staying and go back to their home, even if only for the duration of the truce. But, Ziad Qodeih said, that was now impossible because their house had been “levelled to the ground.”
For the people of Gaza, the relief of the truce has been tinged with sadness, desperation and fear. Apart from the destruction of their homes, many Gazans have lost multiple family members in the bombardment.
Israel launched its attack on Gaza in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 cross-border rampage. The militants killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials.
Some 13,300 Palestinians have been killed by Israel’s bombardment and ground incursion, according to officials in the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip, while 1.7mn people have been displaced.
Israel has signalled it will resume prosecuting the war and even intensify it in southern Gaza until it has “rooted out Hamas” and demolished its military infrastructure. Northern Gaza is already a bombed-out wasteland and for the strip’s 2.3mn people the future promises only misery and danger.
“I don’t even know where we will go if we survive this war,” said Ziad. “Are we going to continue to live in UN schools? There is no other choice. Most people now have damaged or destroyed homes.”
Fawzeya al-Najjar, also from Khuza’a, returned to check on her house. She was relieved to be in her neighbourhood “despite the destruction, the rubble and the grief”.
But it soon became clear it was impossible to move back. Najjar was accompanied by relatives who once lived next door to her but none of their houses had been left unscathed. “I fear the rubble will fall on us if we stay,” she said. “We have to go back to the school.”
Like the Qodeihs, they too had hoped they could spend the truce at home, “to avoid the humiliation of the school” where hundreds of people share a single bathroom. “We feel crushed,” said Najjar. “Our family has already lost dozens of martyrs, including women and children. Yesterday my 16-year-old nephew was killed.”
Since the start of the war, Israel has severely restricted the supply of food and clean water and has banned the entry of all fuel into the enclave. The truce will allow the supply of some fuel and about 200 trucks carrying food and humanitarian supplies will be permitted to enter the strip daily. Aid agencies say it is not enough but marks an improvement over the past seven weeks.
On Friday, Gazans waited in long queues outside aid distribution centres managed by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, to collect bags of flour that had just arrived via the Rafah crossing on the border with Egypt.
Heba Jarrada, who had fled from Gaza City to Khan Younis, was among those waiting. She said she has been living with her family of 14 at an UNRWA school for weeks. “We moved to the south and we saw death on the road. My kids have not had bread for two weeks.”
She planned to sell one of the four bags of flour to which she was entitled to buy clothes for the children.
In a queue trying to buy newly arrived cooking gas, Abu Ismail said his life had been reduced to finding fuel to refill his two canisters.
“We want to eat and we want to bake,” he said. “Even our dreams are now poor. Tell the world we cannot find bread and we are unable to feed our children.”
Israel has warned that it was “forbidden to go to the north” but on Friday hundreds still tried to walk back to visit homes and remaining family there.
At the Netzarim checkpoint, where a tank blocked the road leading north, Israeli soldiers fired shots wounding six people, according to local media. It sent some scurrying back towards the south or to the sides of the road where they hid behind buildings.
But some people who had stuck it out in north Gaza have decided it is now safer to travel south. Mostafa Badawi, 42, arrived in Khan Younis on a bus having started his journey in Gaza City on a donkey cart.
“The situation there is catastrophic, ” he said. “There has been bombing above our heads in Gaza all the time. I never expected to survive.”