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During Brief Lull, Gazans Return to Neighborhoods Destroyed and Bodies Beneath the Rubble

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The U.N. Security Council has issued a presidential statement calling for an “immediate and unconditional humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza as the Palestinian toll tops 1,000. The weekend saw a series of ceasefire announcements by both Israel and Hamas. On Saturday, more than 130 bodies were pulled from Gaza’s rubble during a 12-hour truce. Just before the truce took effect, an Israeli strike on a house in Khan Younis killed 20 people, including 12 members of the same family. After initially rejecting a ceasefire, Hamas on Sunday called for a 24-hour truce to mark the Muslim holiday ending Ramadan. Overall, the Palestinian death toll has now reached 1,031, mostly civilians, including at least 226 children. Israel says 43 of its soldiers have died, along with three civilians inside Israel. The United Nations says more than 180,000 Palestinians have been displaced and are now living in U.N. shelters. Speaking from Gaza City, Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous reports on the displaced residents who tried to return home only to find their neighborhoods reduced to rubble. “People are trying to salvage anything they could from their homes. Many couldn’t even get anything out. They had fled under bombardment with only the clothes on their backs,” Kouddous says. “It’s a very uneasy ceasefire. … People are waiting to see if the bombs will start falling again.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In an emergency midnight meeting, the United Nations Security Council called for an “immediate and unconditional humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza early this morning as the Palestinian toll topped 1,000 since the Israeli offensive began 21 days ago. U.N. Security Council President Eugène Gasana of Rwanda made the announcement.

EUGÈNE-RICHARD GASANA: The Security Council expresses strong support for the call by international partners and the secretary-general of the United Nations for an immediate and unconditional humanitarian ceasefire, allowing for delivery of urgently needed assistance. And they urged all parties to accept and fully implement a humanitarian ceasefire into the Eid period and beyond.

AMY GOODMAN: The weekend saw a series of ceasefire announcements by both Israel and Hamas. On Saturday, more than 130 bodies were pulled from the rubble in Gaza during a 12-hour truce. Just before the truce took effect, an Israeli strike on a house in Khan Younis killed 20 people. According to the Los Angeles Times, the dead included 12 members of a family sheltering there from fighting in the nearby village of Khuza’a. On Sunday, Hamas called for a 24-hour truce to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

Overall, the Palestinian death toll has now reached 1,035, mostly civilians, including at least 226 children. Israel says 43 of its soldiers have died along with two Israeli civilians and one Thai farmworker. According to the United Nations, more than 180,000 Palestinians have been displaced and are now living in U.N. shelters. Last week, 16 Palestinians died at a U.N. shelter when it came under fire. On Sunday, Israel acknowledged for the first time its troops had fired a mortar shell that hit the courtyard of the U.N. shelter, but it still denies carrying out the deadly attack.

For more on Gaza, we go to Gaza City, where we’re joined by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous.

Sharif, can you talk about what is happening right now in Gaza?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, as we talk of an ongoing ceasefire, there is some shelling that’s continuing, not the brutal bombardment that has been happening for almost three weeks now, but shelling really restricted to some areas in the north, as well as in the east and in the south. Four people have been killed today, including a child. They’ve also pulled at least seven bodies out of Khuza’a in the south, so—an area that has been unreachable by even the Red Cross and ambulances until today.

You know, this comes after a weekend in which, as you mentioned, a 12-hour humanitarian truce was first agreed on Saturday, and this allowed thousands of people to return to their homes for the first time in the areas like Shejaiya and Beit Hanoun. And we went to both on Saturday. And in Beit Hanoun, a town in the northeast of the Gaza Strip close to the Israeli border, the destruction was total. No building was left untouched by Israel’s bombardment. There was just mounds of rubble where buildings once stood. There was dead horses lying on the street, stiff with rigor mortis. Even color had been erased, and everything was covered in a grey cement dust, and it was like a monochromatic wasteland. People were walking around not even recognizing where their homes once were, you know, really just mounds of rubble, twisted rebar and concrete where there was a five-story building. People were trying to salvage anything they could from their homes. Many couldn’t even get anything out. They had fled under bombardment with only their clothes on their backs, and they couldn’t retrieve anything.

And there was evidence in Beit Hanoun of the Israeli invasion everywhere. You could see the tank treads of the Israeli tanks and where the road had been ripped up by the heavy armor that had rolled into Beit Hanoun. In one house, a 20-year-old resident named Mustafa al-Masri showed us his house, which was still standing but had been raided and ransacked by Israeli soldiers. We saw mattresses on the floor. We saw bullets, bullet casings all over the roof, two shoulder-mounted rocket launchers on the roof, where they had presumably engaged in some kind of battle with militants. And there was, you know, other things like bottled water and mosquito spray with Hebrew writing on it.

They also arrested people from their homes. One resident told me that Israeli soldiers raided his home, separated the men and the women, then blindfolded and arrested him, his uncle and three cousins, took them across the border into Israel and interrogated them for two days about what he called the resistance. And then, he said, he was dumped back on the Erez crossing. He couldn’t get back to his home in Beit Hanoun, which was under heavy shelling for three days, and didn’t know where the rest of his family was—both his grandparents, his two younger brothers, age 12 and 13, his sister and his niece. And he had gone back to his house and found—what he said was five floors had become one. There was a smell of death that was coming out of the house. He was hoping that they weren’t—that wasn’t their bodies that he was smelling. He was trying to find them. So this was the kind of scene, the kind of bombardment that Israel had left behind.

In Shejaiya, the neighborhood east of Gaza City, we witnessed similar scenes of devastation. People had gone there to try and, again, salvage what they could from their homes. And you saw, just by midday—the truce started at 8:00 a.m., and by midday there was just residents pouring, again, out of Shejaiya, carrying the little that they could get from their homes. You saw mattresses piled atop cars and people carrying clothes on donkey carts. And a bystander told me, “This looks like the second Nakba.” That’s the Arabic for “catastrophe,” the term that Palestinians use to describe the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands during the forming of Israel in 1948. So, really difficult scenes and people using bulldozers and other heavy equipment to dig bodies out of the rubble. And people are still missing. Now, I just came back from, as I said, Khuza’a, where seven bodies had been pulled out. And it’s a very uneasy truce, an uneasy ceasefire. And people are waiting to see if the bombs will start falling again.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, over the weekend, CBS’s Charlie Rose interviewed Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who called for an end to Israel’s occupation of Gaza.

KHALED MESHAAL: [translated] This is not a prerequisite. Life is not a prerequisite. Life is a right for our people in Palestine. Since 2006, when the world refused the outcomes of the elections, our people actually lived under the siege of eight years. This is a collective punishment. We need to lift the siege. We have to have a port. We have to have an airport. This is the first message.

The second message: In order to stop the bloodletting, we need to look at the underlying causes. We need to look at the occupation. We need to stop the occupation. Netanyahu doesn’t take heed of our rights. And Mr. Kerry, months ago, tried to find a window through the negotiations in order to meet our target: to live without occupation, to reach our state. Netanyahu has killed our hope or killed our dream, and he killed the American initiative.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, that was Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. Can you respond to what he’s saying? What about these truces and the calls for the ceasefire?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, I also spoke to several Hamas officials over the weekend about the ceasefire. It seems what Israel is trying to do, or what is doing, is trying to call truce after truce and kind of wind down the conflict without addressing any of the key Palestinian conditions, any of the key Palestinian demands, which include, first and foremost, a lifting of the blockade that has strangled the Gaza Strip and is, in effect, causing these repeated conflicts, three of which we’ve had in the last six years alone, so essentially bringing back the whole situation to square one. And when you speak to people, you speak to Hamas officials, but also just Palestinians in Gaza, they say that after all this death, after all this destruction, after all this displacement, that they’re going to go back to the same situation they had before this latest conflict, which was extremely dire.

We have to remember Israel has put—and Egypt, as well, has put—a blockade on Gaza since 2007. There was tunnels going into Egypt, where many goods were being brought in—basic goods, construction materials—that both Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi, the second Egyptian president, really turned a blind eye to. And the Rafah border was closed, the crossing, but it was somewhat open. But ever since the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the current president of Egypt, who really did a very harsh clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and paints Hamas as a terrorist group, that is allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, people say that things here have become unbearable. Nearly all of the tunnels were destroyed. The Rafah crossing was almost completely sealed. And life became extremely difficult for Palestinians here. And this is partly a result of that. And so, for people to go back, after this conflict, to that same situation, I think, is unacceptable, both for Palestinian people, but also for Hamas as a political movement, which is really fighting for its life, if it comes out with nothing from this conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Hamas of violating its own offer of a 24-hour humanitarian truce in Gaza. He was speaking to David Gregory on Meet the Press.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: You know, we’ve accepted five ceasefires, acted upon them. Hamas has rejected every single one of them, violated them, including two humanitarian ceasefires, which we accepted and implemented in the last 24 hours. Now Hamas is suggesting a ceasefire and, believe it or not, David, they’ve even violated their own ceasefire. So they continue to fire at us.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Sharif, can you respond?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Israel is shelling today. I can hear it right now in different parts. And as I mentioned at the top of the show, they killed four people today, including a boy, who was just buried. And when we talk about ceasefire, we’re also talking about conditions where Israeli tanks and troops are still on the ground inside Gaza, still continuing with their declared objective, which is to find and destroy tunnels. So, when you speak to many people about the ceasefire, they say it’s not a ceasefire; Israeli troops are in Gaza and continuing with their ground offensive and their ground operations.

And there was kind of a game almost played with calling for a ceasefire, where Israel and Hamas agreed initially to this 12-hour ceasefire, and then Israel extended by four hours and then by another 24, Hamas rejected that, and then Hamas called its own 24-hour ceasefire, because I think Hamas wants to seem as if Israel is not the only one that can call the shots, that it can’t start the wars and end them whenever it feels like it. So, it wants to feel like a player in the process also.

Right now, this latest ceasefire was supposed to expire at 2:00 p.m. It’s now 3:00. We hear shelling. Israel has said that it won’t accept a ceasefire, but it will respond to any fire from Hamas. So, it’s a very uneasy situation right now. As I’m speaking to you, I can hear heavier booms in the distance that we haven’t heard for the past couple of days, so things may be coming apart. Hopefully we won’t return to the brutal bombardment that Gaza has been under that has killed over a thousand people, mostly civilians, as you mentioned, over 200 children.

And just to describe the massive, massive displacement, only—about 10 percent of Gaza is displaced. When you walk around Gaza City, you just see people in parks, you see them in unfinished buildings. Shifa Hospital is a refugee camp. Most of them are from Shejaiya.

Today is the first day of Eid, which is a Muslim holiday. It’s supposed to be a time of celebration. It’s now really a time of mourning. People are trying to bury their dead. They don’t have the money to buy the clothes that they usually do for their children on Eid. And so, it’s a very difficult time for Palestinians in Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: And Sharif, the buzzing that we’re hearing behind you, in addition to the explosions, do you know what that is?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, the buzzing is an ever-present sound in Gaza. It’s the sound of the drones overhead, surveillance drones—some of them are attack drones—that are always there. Even when the shelling stops and the bombardment stops, you always hear the drones. And it’s really part of the—it’s very hard psychologically, because it’s an ever-present noise, and you kind of feel that you’re being watched all the time. And also, today, our driver and journalists working with us, Palestinians, said they received robo-calls, automated calls, today with threats from the Israeli military, one of them saying, you know, “You terrorist, you hear that plane overhead? You’re the target,” and another one at a house that said, “Oh, terrorist, you hear the sound of this tank,” and then the sound of a loud boom. So there’s also an element of psychological warfare that is being played on Palestinians in Gaza that is ongoing.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, I want to thank you for being with us. Stay safe. Democracy Now! correspondent in Gaza City. We will link to your stories at

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we speak to a Palestinian graduate student here in the United States. He just got word that four of his cousins—one first cousin, three second cousins—have been killed in Khan Younis. We last talked to him in 2009, when his father and two brothers were in a car fleeing from their village in Operation Cast Lead, as Israel call it. His two brothers were killed. His father was seriously injured. We’ll be back in a minute.

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