When Ahmed Owedat returned to his home 18 days after Israeli soldiers took it over in the middle of the night, he was greeted with an overpowering stench.
He picked through the wreckage of his possessions thrown from upstairs windows to find that the departing troops had left a number of messages. One came from piles of faeces on his tiled floors and in wastepaper baskets, and a plastic water bottle filled with urine.
If that was not clear enough, the words “Fuck Hamas” had been carved into a concrete wall in the staircase. “Burn Gaza down” and “Good Arab = dead Arab” were engraved on a coffee table. The star of David was drawn in blue in a bedroom.
“I have scrubbed the floors three times today and three times yesterday,” said Owedat, 52, as he surveyed the damage, which included four televisions, a fridge, a clock and several computers tossed out of windows, shredded curtains and slashed soft furnishings.
A handful of plastic chairs had their seats ripped open, through which the occupying soldiers defecated, he said. Gaping holes had been blown in four ground floor external walls, and there was damage from shelling to the top floor. There, in the living room, diagrams had been drawn on the walls, showing buildings and palm trees in the village, with figures which Owedat thought represented their distance from the border.
“I have no money to fix this,” he said, claiming his life savings of $10,000 was missing from his apartment. But at least it could be repaired, he acknowledged, gesturing through the broken glass at a wasteland stretching towards the Israel-Gaza border 3km away. “Every house between here and there has been destroyed.”
The family of 13 fled their home after seeing troops and tanks advancing at 1am on 20 July, two days into the Israeli ground invasion. Several times, during the short-lived ceasefires in the following two weeks, they attempted to return only to find Israeli troops in their home instructing them to keep away.
The Israel Defence Forces did not respond to a request for comment.
Half an hour’s drive north, a similar picture was found at Beit Hanoun girls school, taken over by the IDF following the ground operation. Broken glass and rubble littered the floors and stairs. Tables and desks were covered in the abandoned detritus of an occupying army: hardened bread rolls, crisps, biscuits, empty tins of hummus, desiccated olives, cans of energy drinks, bullet casings. Flies buzzed around the rotting food.
Here too, said Fayez, the school caretaker – who didn’t want to give his full name – soldiers had defecated in bins and cardboard boxes, and urinated into water bottles. Each classroom had the points of the compass marked on its walls, along with other graffiti. “You will be fucked here” and “Don’t forget it’s time for you to die” were chalked in English on blackboards.
Here, Hamas had struck back. Since the troops pulled out, counter-graffiti had been sprayed on the walls, referring to Hamas’s militant wing, the Qassam brigades. “Qassam’s army will crush you – dogs” and “Israel will be defeated”.
The 1,250 pupils at Beit Hanoun girls school – partly funded in 2009 by the UK’s Department for International Development after the last war but one – will, hopefully, never see either set of venomous messages. Workers began the marathon cleanup operation this week but, said Fayez, “it will take at least a month to fix”. The new academic year is due to begin in a little over two weeks.
Shourk Naim, 20, who lives opposite the school from which she graduated three years ago, said her house had been in the direct line of fire emanating from its classrooms during the soldiers’ occupancy. On the top floor, a bed’s flimsy headboard was riddled with bullet holes, the mirror of a dressing table shattered. Out of every window, there was a view of destroyed homes.
Naim’s ground floor bedroom, shared with her husband and nine-month-old son, was wrecked. “The soldiers have been in here,” she said, looking around at the debris on her first visit back to the house. “This is a big shock.”
The family denied there were any Hamas or other militants among their 32 members, but acknowledged that fighters lived in and operated from the neighbourhood. The war had been worth it, said Mohammed Abu Ouda, 33, in order to “maintain our dignity”. Shattered houses could be rebuilt, he said. And what of the 1800-plus dead? “They are martyrs.”
Back in Burij, Ahmed Owedat was less certain about the balance sheet of the four-week war. “Who won? I don’t have an answer. I just know we survived, barely.”