A Chronicle of War in Gaza The Mourning that Follows the Hate

With the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip, the scope of the destruction and human tragedy has become clear. Both sides are trying to come to terms with a war that has ended without any real hope for lasting peace. SPIEGEL reporters in Gaza and Israel have reconstructed the tragic events of the war.
Von SPIEGEL Staff

It's Wednesday, Jan. 21, the day the last Israeli soldier is withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, that hapless strip of land along the Mediterranean, only 360 square kilometers (139 square miles) in area and yet a constantly recurring focal point of global politics. By now, many Gaza residents have returned to the wreckage of their homes, their lives and their politics.

Ghazi Hamad, a pragmatic but now largely powerless Hamas official, is sitting in a garden in Rafah and talking about peace.

Mohammed Abu Ahmed, a smuggler, is back to shoveling the sand out of his four tunnels that connect the Gaza Strip with Egypt.

John Ging, the United Nations representative in Gaza, is inspecting his bombed-out schools, his infirmaries and community centers as he tries to get his organization up and running again.

The Samunis, from Saitun, are sitting amid the stench of death in the wreckage that was once their homes, mourning the 48 members of their family killed in the war.

Abu Hamza, an unsuccessful Hamas fighter, is putting away his uniform. He never even fought against the enemy.

Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, a Palestinian doctor who works in Israel, is driving into Gaza through the Erez border crossing -- the only person to cross into Gaza that day -- to pick up his four surviving children.

The war is over -- for now -- 22 days, 13 dead Israelis and about 1,300 dead Palestinians later. The Arab world is in an uproar, and the international community is criticizing Israel for its disproportionate use of violence . In the United States, newly inaugurated President Barack Obama is admonishing the parties to respect the cease-fire.

Politicians and military officials in Israel are satisfied with the war. The deterrent potential of the Israeli military has been reestablished, a senior government official says off the record -- probably the country's most important war objective after the failed Lebanon campaign two-and-a-half years ago. The damage to Israel's image abroad is relatively minor, says the official. The Europeans and Americans have been more or less sympathetic, and the Arab rulers will eventually calm down again.

Does this mean that it was a successful war?

A Chronology of War

On Dec. 27, at about 11:30 a.m., as Israeli F-16 fighter jets and Apache and Cobra helicopters take off for the first time, Hamas leader Ghazi Hamad is sitting in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, reading a book about Arabs in Israel. Children are playing in the garden, and the sun is shining on the surrounding olive groves and roads lined with sycamore trees.

Hamad is turning the page when he is startled by a buzzing sound in the air and, seconds later, a muffled explosion. A cloud of dust quickly rises into the sky above the city's main police headquarters a few hundred meters away.

The Israelis have bombed the police station, as they have done in places across the Gaza Strip, marking the beginning of Operation Cast Lead. The first phase, the aerial bombardment, has begun. It is an Israeli attack that Hamad had foreseen. Until recently, he had been sending memos to Gaza City and Damascus to warn the Hamas politburo -- and to prevent Qassam rockets from being fired at Israel once again, after a six-month cease-fire. But they had stopped listening to him quite some time ago.

Hamad was Hamas' government spokesman three years ago, immediately after the group won the election in the Gaza Strip. He represented the new, pragmatic Hamas. But his career quickly ended when he wrote a newspaper article critical of the military leadership for firing rockets at Israel once again.

When he sees the bombs falling on Rafah on this day, it seems emblematic of his failure. His only remaining option is to employ what remaining influence he has. Using his mobile phone, he dispatches ambulances, speaks with doctors and distributes his eight children among the homes of his relatives.

The Hamas Fighter

Now it's Palestinian Abu Hamza al-Muhadjir's turn to fight. The 26-year-old Hamas fighter's soft, bearded face is hidden behind a black mask. He's a member of the Qassam Brigades, which fire rockets at Israel. It's Dec. 27, and Abu Hamza is stationed at Gaza City's Saraya Prison.

He has only fired the Chinese Kalashnikov he wears over his shoulder in training exercises, and he doesn't know how he will handle it when fighting against the Israeli special forces. Abu Hamza has only been with Hamas for two years. Before that, he was with Fatah. His grudge against Israel isn't any greater than that of the average Palestinian, but he is grateful for the pay.

The Israeli bombs begin falling on Gaza City shortly before noon, but his unit flees immediately.

On this day, the Israel military drops 100 tons of bombs onto 50 targets, killing 225 Palestinians, including the Hamas chief of police.

The nighttime images of fireballs over Gaza are broadcast on television screens worldwide, angry Palestinians are heard criticizing Israel in the best broken English they can muster, and a man appears who will have the task in the coming days and weeks of explaining Israel to the world.

Mark Regev is the Israeli government's spokesman. He constantly repeats its position -- eloquently and completely devoid of emotion. On this day, he tells reporters, "No society would continue to see its civilian population targeted this way."

The Tunnel Digger

On the second day, the Israelis bomb the smuggling tunnels at Rafah, leaving deep craters along the border with Egypt.

The tunnels are one of Israel's main targets in this war, because they serve as a conduit into the Gaza Strip -- not only for olive oil, gasoline and cigarettes, but also for Kalashnikovs, explosives and rockets.

Mohammed Abu Ahmed, 28, manages four tunnels. The six months leading up to the war, he says, were the most profitable ever. Indeed, these tunnels have made him an affluent man.

He's on his way to one of his tunnels, carrying six warm chicken sandwiches for the men working the early shift, when he hears the first explosion.

He throws aside the plastic bag of sandwiches, runs into a small hut that conceals the shaft and presses the button on the intercom three times. "Come up immediately," he shouts. "I'll disassemble the machine and the compressor."

Abu Ahmed, younger than some of his workers, calmly directs the operation. He has been in the business since it began to take off 15 years ago. He has seen tunnels collapse, and he has re-excavated them.

In the next few hours, his men, in front of their respective huts, load dozens of electric motors, cable winches, hammer drills and air compressors onto trucks and take them to hiding places, so that they can be used again after the war.

Meanwhile, doctors at the Shifa Hospital in Gaza City express their astonishment over the large numbers of people coming to them with unusual burns of a scope they have never seen before: large, deep wounds emitting smoke and a chemical oder -- the skin, fat and flesh have been scorched to the bones. The doctors later conclude that the wounds must have been caused by phosphorus grenades.

On the Dec. 29, the third day of the war, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev says: "Our enemy is not the people of Gaza. On the contrary, we are seeking peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians."

The Israelis continue their aerial bombardment, striking the office of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and, for the first time, a mosque and the Islamic University of Gaza. Israel claims that weapons were hidden and rockets being assembled there.

A Fighter Who Hasn't Fired a Shot

Abu Hamza, the Hamas fighter, still hasn't managed to fire a single shot. There is a rumor circulating in his unit that Israel is familiar with Hamas' defense plans, which is why it has limited its attack to an aerial bombardment. The unit's commanders modify their strategy, keeping their men hidden and awaiting the enemy in the streets of Gaza.

In those streets, Abu Hamza finds himself standing alone, carrying his Chinese Kalashnikov, a radio, a Nikon and a brand-new video camera.

Abu Hamza reasons that it would already constitute a victory if Hamas managed to destroy a single tank or kill a single Israeli soldier, and if he could place a video of the incident on the Internet. "The enemy will see it," Hamza tells himself, "and they will be afraid."

In the following days, the world gradually recovers from its initial paralysis, as international calls for a cease-fire become louder. By now more than 400 Palestinians have been killed.

Israeli government spokesman Regev says that Israel hasn't yet achieved its war objectives. "The Hamas military machine is still there," he tells reporters. "It's still formidable. This is not a time for any kind of euphoria ... this could get worse before it gets better."

Israel launches the second phase of the war, the ground invasion, on Jan. 3. The army cuts the Gaza Strip in half and its tanks advance into the region surrounding the former Jewish settlement of Netzarim.

On Sunday, Jan. 4, at 9 a.m., soldiers knock on the doors of the homes owned by the al-Samuni family, an extended clan of Palestinians living in Saitun, south of Gaza City, where olive and orange plantations begin. A dirt road leads to the Samunis' homes.

Destructive Fury

Almasa al-Samuni, a beautiful 13-year-old girl, is terrified when she sees the soldiers in the doorway. They are wearing bulletproof vests, they are carrying automatic weapons and their faces are blackened. They herd Almasa and the remaining relatives into the house owned by her Uncle Wail.

There is shooting on all sides as they run across to the uncle's house. Almasa later describes seeing her father's house being blown up. About 100 people spend the night in her uncle's house. There is no food or water, and it is very cold.

The next morning, at about 6:30 a.m., Almasa follows her brother Mohammed, 25, outside to fetch straw and kindling to build a fire. She hears the helicopter, sees her brother being shot to death in a hail of bullets in front of her, and feels the explosion behind her at the same time. It has struck her uncle's house. According to witness accounts, 29 people are killed, including Almasa's mother Leila, 40, her brothers Ismail, 15, Ishak, 14, Nassir, 4 and Mohammed's baby son.

Those of the wounded who can still walk manage to reach an ambulance about a kilometer away. The others remain in the house. They are not evacuated until two days later, and some bleed to death. In the following weeks, 19 other bodies are discovered in the rubble of the small settlement.

Israeli soldiers have even vented their destructive fury within the ruins of the houses, where they have smeared graffiti on the walls. The words "Arabs are a piece of shit" are written on one wall, and Stars of David are scratched onto the wallpaper. The toilets are overflowing, and the floors are littered with plastic bags filled with excrement.

It is one of the most tragic and still inscrutable stories of this war. Why was this small collection of houses wiped out? It lies well within the interior of the Gaza Strip, not on the periphery where most of the rockets were fired at Israel.

The Israelis have not commented on the case, saying that they want to investigate the incident first.

On the day of the attack on the Samuni settlement, Israeli government spokesman Regev says: "Both the civilian population of southern Israel and the civilian population of the Gaza Strip have been victims of this terrible, extremist Hamas regime."

An Attack on UN Facilities

On the next day, Jan. 6, tanks fire at a United Nations school in Jabaliya, a refugee camp. About 40 people are killed. At this point, John Ging, the UN representative in Gaza, can no longer contain his rage -- this was his school, the international community's school. Where, he asks, can civilians be safe, if not here?

Ging is more than a UN official. He's the de facto manager of the Gaza Strip, where 800,000 people are directly dependent on the food his organization distributes, where 250,000 children attend the schools it operates, and where 10,000 people work for him.

During the following days, Ging becomes the UN's most visible representative in a long time, appearing simultaneously on CNN, Al-Jazeera, Israeli television and German public broadcaster ZDF. Wearing a black suit with no tie, he stares fiercely and earnestly into the camera.

He speaks loudly and accusingly: "Our warehouse. The schools with the refugees. The university laboratory! The American school, which was built for $7 million, where girls and boys were taught together -- in English! Everything is gone!"

Mark Regev says: "We are seeing fire from the facility. If Hamas turns a UN facility into a battle zone, if Hamas takes over a UN facility which is supposed to be a neutral facility, then that's a crime."

By this time, the war has turned into a dirty one. Eight hospitals and 26 clinics are damaged or destroyed. The bombs have completely destroyed 4,100 private residences, and 100,000 people are fleeing the violence.

The third phase of the war begins on Monday, Jan. 12, as Israeli ground troops advance into Gaza City to conduct house-to-house combat.

Hamas fighter Abu Hamza is still waiting in the streets to fight Israel. But it will never happen. Israeli soldiers later report that the Hamas fighters they encountered promptly took to their heels. The war is almost over, and Israel is pleased with the successes of its military. Public confidence in the country's leadership has almost doubled. By this point, diplomatic efforts to bring about a cease-fire are in full swing.

A Voice of Reconciliation Experiences His own Tragedy

On Friday, Jan. 16, Bisan, the daughter of Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, bakes a cake to celebrate the coming cease-fire.

Later that day, Abu al-Aish calls Israel's Channel 10 television station. He has provided commentary several times since the war began. He's been popular because he hadn't condemned or accused, but merely reported. A Palestinian who speaks Hebrew, he describes himself as a voice of peace.

But this time, when anchorman Shlomi Eldar takes the call, he hears nothing but the voice of a distraught man: "My girls, oh God, they have killed my girls," Abu al-Aish shouts from his house in Jabaliya, his voice raw with pain. Two tank shells have struck the house, and three of his daughters -- Bisan, 20, Mayar, 15, and Aya, 13 -- are dead.

His call is broadcast live for three-and-a-half minutes, an eternity on television, as viewers hear only his voice and see Shlomi Eldar fighting back tears. The father shouts and sobs, speaking in Hebrew and Arabic, repeating the same phrase over and over again: "Why, God, why?"

The father's pain fills the studio and hundreds of thousands of Israeli living rooms. It is the first time in this war that viewers witness the unfiltered suffering of others.

It clearly shakes the anchorman, who is suddenly confronted with a grieving, 53-year-old, Palestinian man whose daughters have in the past traveled to peace camps in the United States -- a man who calls Israel his second home and Israelis his friends, someone who works in Israel as a doctor and helps Jewish women have children.

"I must confess that I don't know how I should end this conversation," the anchorman says to viewers. He gets up, walks out of the studio and calls the army and the Red Cross, begging them to help the children of his friend. He manages to have an Israeli ambulance sent to Gaza to bring the doctor and a wounded daughter to Israel's Sheba Medical Center, where Abu al-Aish works.

Later on, when the anchorman asks an army spokesman why the house was bombed, he replies that snipers had been shooting at soldiers from there. Abu al-Aish replies: "All these little girls fired off was laughter and love and peace, nothing else."

Two days later, on a Sunday, the war comes to an end, for the time being, after both sides declare cease-fires.

So was it a successful war?

Israel says that its air force bombed more than 2,000 targets and destroyed half of all Hamas rockets, as well as 200 residences of Hamas commanders, all government buildings and 80 percent of all smuggling tunnels.

Isreali spokesman Regev says: "It would have been easier for us to carpet-bomb this whole neighborhood to get rid of Hamas. But we are (instead) risking the lives of our young servicement (and) using surgical military ground tactics to deal with Hamas military facilities."

In the meantime, Mohammed Abu Ahmed has already crawled through one of his tunnels to Egypt once again. He says the tunnel will be back in operation soon.

John Ging, the UN representative, is sitting in his office in Gaza City, back to making demands. He wants Israel to open the border crossings, and he says that this war has only strengthened the extremists on both sides.

Ghazi Hamad, the Hamas official, slept at the homes of relatives during the war, but his own house wasn't hit. He even says he could accept an Israel within the 1967 borders. He talks a lot about reconciliation between Hamas and its rival, the Fatah movement. Oddly enough, his position has suddenly become more popular, even within Hamas. Many Gaza residents are furious with the hardliners, who provoked the war with their rockets.

Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish has had little time to grieve. He gives press conferences and interviews. He wants to be the face of Palestinians in Gaza. He hopes that his pain will rub off on Israeli society, and that his daughters will have been the last victims in this war.

This is his mission, and it is what keeps him going during this difficult time.

Five days after the attack, the doctor is permitted to drive to Gaza to pick up his four surviving children. Along the way he encounters tanks loaded onto trucks, as the Israelis withdraw. Busses, parked at the border crossing, wait to pick up refugees. At a time when everyone wants to get out of Gaza, the doctor is going back in. He needs to.

He sees his destroyed home for the first time, and the graves of his daughters. There are no flowers in Gaza, nothing he can place on the graves. He's now convinced the shells were fired by Israelis, and he remembers having seen a tank just before the attack.

"It is a crime," Abu al-Aish says for the first time. He will repeat his assertion again and again in the coming days. "It was no mistake," he says. "It was deliberate."

It has become difficult for him to be the one to bring a reconciliatory voice to this conflict.

When Abu al-Aish leaves Gaza with his children, his son asks: "Papa, are the Israelis bad people?" The father tries to explain that it isn't that simple, and that there are bad Israelis and good Israelis. "I don't want my children to sink into hatred," he says.

It is dark by the time they arrive at the hospital. Hesitantly, the two youngest children step out of the car and stand there, frozen, suddenly facing half a dozen television cameras. It is the first time that the children have ever set foot on Israeli soil. They have come to visit their wounded sister in the hospital.

The cameras record everything. Israeli reporters stroke the girl's hand as she sits in her wheelchair, and they embrace Abu al-Aish, attempting to comfort him. The entire scene is broadcast live, and at that moment it seems like an attempt by both sides to exorcise the demons of an old hostility.

SUSANNE KOELBL, JULIANE VON MITTELSTAEDT, MATHIEU VON ROHR, VOLKHARD WINDFUHR, BERNHARD ZAND

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.