GAZA CITY – It was a day to take stock of the damage, search for the missing and bury the dead.
At 8 a.m. Saturday, guns fell silent across much of the Gaza Strip for a 12-hour pause in fighting between Israel and Hamas. Palestinians surged into devastated areas to see what remained of their homes and recover a few precious belongings. On the Israeli side, the truce meant a welcome respite from the need to rush to a shelter whenever sirens warned of approaching rockets.
Despite the ferocity of the fighting over the last 19 days, many of those who ventured out in Gaza weren’t prepared for what they found: yawning craters, pancaked homes and mountains of debris.
Khalid Biltaji, 64, stood before the ruins of his house in Shajaiya, a neighborhood on the east side of Gaza City, and wept.
“A lifetime’s worth of work, and now it’s gone,” said a cousin, Mohammed Biltaji, 38.
As Western and Middle East diplomats pressed for a longer truce, Israel announced that it would extend the pause in fighting by four hours, and then a full day – even while continuing to hunt for and destroy Hamas’ network of tunnels. But the militant group, which controls Gaza, rejected the extensions and fired another salvo of rockets toward central Israel.
Minutes before the 12-hour truce took effect, an Israeli strike on a house in the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis killed 20 people, said Ashraf Qidra, a Health Ministry spokesman. The victims included at least 12 members of a family that was sheltering there from fierce clashes in the nearby village of Khuza.
Even during the pause in fighting, the crackle of gunfire could be heard sporadically, and drones circled overhead. Warning shots were fired at ambulances that tried to enter two border areas, news reports said. But no major battles broke out.
More than 130 bodies were pulled Saturday from under rubble where they had lain for days in neighborhoods cut off by fighting, pushing the Palestinian death toll above 1,000.
Saturday also brought word of more Israeli military deaths, a blow in a country where virtually every Jewish citizen has a friend or relative serving in the military, particularly now that nearly 60,000 reservists have been called up.
The army announced the deaths of seven more soldiers, raising the number to 42. Three civilians also have died on the Israeli side, including a foreign farmworker.
The two sides had agreed to the hiatus at the urging of Secretary of State John Kerry and other mediators, who were seeking to forge a longer truce in time for the upcoming Muslim feast marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. The feast is expected to begin Monday. Diplomats voiced hopes that a more substantive cease-fire would soon be in place, with all parties’ longer-term security and economic interests addressed.
Although most of the more than 2,000 projectiles fired by Hamas and its allies since July 8 have fallen harmlessly or were intercepted by Israel’s antimissile system, the rocket fire has been a nerve-fraying reality for nearly three weeks.
Israelis have been shaken by the discovery of a large and sophisticated network of underground passageways in the Gaza Strip, many of them designed to funnel attackers across the frontier.
In Gaza, Saturday’s respite allowed many who had been trapped in their homes or temporary shelters to reunite with scattered family members, make hospital visits and search for desperately needed supplies. Fishermen cast their nets for the first time in days, and children splashed in the waves.
Markets were jammed with people stocking up on food, clothing and batteries to see them through daily power outages.