Gaza: Life amid the rubble

Children walk through the rubble

More than 400,000 of Gaza's residents were displaced by Israel's recent 50-day military operation. Some 18,000 homes were also destroyed and many more were damaged. One of the worst affected neighbourhoods was Shejaiya, near the eastern border, where the Israeli military says it targeted Palestinian militants and their tunnels.

Here, four Shejaiya residents explain what it's like living within the rubble of their homes.

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Shejaiya

The crowded eastern district of Shejaiya in the Gaza Strip saw one of the bloodiest days of the recent conflict. Israel told the 80,000 residents to leave before it targeted the area. However, many did not believe the assault would be so serious and remained in their homes.

On the night of Saturday 19 July, Shejaiya was pounded with heavy artillery, mortars and air strikes sending up columns of thick, black smoke. Within 24 hours, dozens of Palestinians and at least 13 Israeli soldiers were killed.

From early on Sunday morning there were chaotic scenes as thousands of local people tried to flee. They headed to Gaza City, searching for shelter at United Nations' schools and at the main Shifa hospital, which was overwhelmed with casualties.

Battles erupted between Israeli troops and Hamas militants in the streets. Israel's officials say the residential neighbourhood contained a fortified network of tunnels used for attacks and to produce and store rockets. The Palestinian government has described the killing of civilians as a "heinous massacre".

Satellite imagery before and after the conflict shows a razed neighbourhood
satellite imagery showing the part of Shejaiya where the interviewees live

Now the battered district stands as a reminder of the ferocity of the latest fighting and Gaza's unsolved political problems. Locals, like the four featured below, long to rebuild their homes but are unable to do so while tight border restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt remain in place. Israel says these are for security reasons. It is worried militants will use construction supplies to rebuild tunnels and it currently allows very limited imports for international projects.

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English teacher

Teacher Abdul Karim Abu Ahmed, 55, says Shejaiya used to be a beautiful district and that he was proud to live here. He had a big house with a garden that he shared with his wife and 11 children, aged seven to 25, but it was shattered in the bombardment.

'We will rebuild'

Mr Abu Ahmed, his brother and two of his sons, spend much of their day at their badly damaged home and are determined to rebuild when they can.

Meanwhile, he is renting a flat in Gaza City where they also stay with his wife and daughters. He is based at the Education Ministry and supervises English language teaching for Gaza's elementary schools.

Some pages of work that he had brought home for marking, still blow around in the rubble.

However, he has salvaged his treasured English novels and folders from the ruins of his study and piled them up in a bedroom.

English teacher
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Barber

Essam Habib set up his barber's shop just off Habib Street in Shejaiya 18 months ago. Although the recent fighting brought destruction throughout the neighbourhood, his business and family home opposite remained standing.

Cleanliness in the dust

There are not many customers left in Shejaiya, but Essam says he must try to support his family as best he can.

"I did not have another choice but to clean up this shop, come back to work and pray to God to bless us," he says.

Water pipes have been broken in the area and there are straggling power cables on the ground so Essam must bring in water and use a generator when he's cutting hair.

Like most locals, Essam is mourning the loss of loved ones. His aunt, her husband and daughters were all killed in an Israeli air strike.

Barber Essam Habib
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Grandmother

Grandmother Suhila Mohamadain, 54, is a mother of 12 and lost one of her sons, Ismail, in the latest conflict. He was on the top floor of their four-storey building when it came under heavy bombardment. A poster in his memory now hangs from the broken walls.

'We are homeless'

It took more than a decade to build the family home, which was divided into eight apartments.

Now it has been reduced to rubble and the family's car, tuk-tuk and fully stocked grocery store have also been crushed.

The force of the blast blew a pick-up truck parked nearby onto the roof of the house before another air strike knocked it down.

The family has squeezed into a rented apartment, however, they spend much of the day camped by the remains of their home.

"The rebuilding of the house will take years," Suhila says. "There's not much left in my life. I don't want anything but to live in peace."

Grandmother Suhila
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Builder

Mohammed Habib is a construction worker who cannot yet repair his own badly damaged house because of the lack of building materials. An entire exterior wall of the family home was blown apart as Israeli air strikes and tank fire destroyed the buildings and a clinic opposite.

Builder without materials

Mohammed and his relatives fled Shejaiya as it was being heavily shelled on 19 July.

They took temporary shelter in a UN school but returned as soon as they could. They managed to clear out two rooms of their house in which some 25 people now stay.

They include Mohammed's wife and daughter, his father, grandmother, his brothers and their wives and children.

There is no electricity and water comes from tanks in the street.

Mohammed is worried about the future. He says it will take years to remove all the rubble and rebuild. "Only God knows when there will be a solution."

Builder Mohammed Habib
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Aerial footage over Shejaiya shows the extent of the destruction
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This feature was produced by:

In Gaza, Yolande Knell (reporter, photographs), Moose Campbell (camera), Hamada Abu Qammar (producer), Yousef Shomali (producer)

In London, Christine Jeavans, Salim Qurashi, Patrick Asare, Nzar Tofiq and Melanie Moeller

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