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Misplaced hopes of a ceasefire

After two days of huddling indoors to avoid Israeli air assaults, Gaza family loses a member the moment he steps out.

world Updated: Nov 18, 2012 01:18 IST

The Abu Wardah family woke up Friday morning to word that a hudna - Arabic for cease-fire - had been declared during the three-hour visit of the Egyptian prime minister to this embattled territory.

So, after two days huddling indoors to avoid intensifying Israeli air assaults, Abed Abu Wardah, the patriarch, went to the market to buy fruits and vegetables. His 22-year-old son, Aiman, took an empty blue canister to be refilled with cooking gas. The younger children of their neighborhood, Annazla, in this town north of Gaza City went out to the dirt alley to kick a soccer ball.

But around 9:45 a.m., family members and neighbors said, an explosion struck a doorway near the Abu Wardah home, killing Aiman as he returned from his errand, as well as Mahmoud Sadallah, 4, who lived next door and had refused his older cousin's pleas to stay indoors.

"What is the truce? What does it mean?" Aiman's brother Mohammed, 27, asked as he mourned a few hours later.

It is unclear who was responsible for the strike on Annazla: The damage was nowhere near severe enough to have come from an Israeli F-16, raising the possibility that an errant missile fired by Palestinian militants was responsible for the deaths.

What seems clear is that expectations for a pause in the fighting, for at least one family, were tragically misplaced.

Scores of rockets were fired from Gaza toward cities in southern Israel during the visit of Prime Minister Hesham Kandil of Egypt, causing panic and shattering hopes that the Egyptian leader might broker a longer-term cease-fire. The Israeli military said it suspended airstrikes during the visit, though at least two of the familiar booms of F-16 bombardments were heard in Gaza City around 9am.

The failed hudna began a day of highs and lows across Gaza, where the largely impoverished population of 1.5 million people has become somewhat inured to violence after years of battle with Israel, and where resistance - whether by firing rockets or throwing rocks - is an honored part of the culture.

Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the militant Hamas faction, which has governed the strip since 2007, appeared in public for the first time since the hostilities began to triumphantly welcome his Egyptian counterpart, Kandil. Because of the support of Egypt's new Islamist leadership, Haniyeh told a crowd surrounding the two men in a hospital hallway, "the time in which the Israeli occupation does whatever it wants in Gaza is gone."

A few hours later, the al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' military wing, issued a statement claiming that it had downed an Israeli warplane. An Israeli spokesman called the claim "absolutely false," but it nonetheless led to extra-exuberant shouts of "God is great" through mosque loudspeakers as people gathered for sunset prayers.

More people roamed the streets of Gaza City and other northern areas of the strip Friday afternoon than had on Thursday, shopping or just sitting on stoops, perhaps because it was the Islamic holy day.

But by nightfall, airstrikes and rocket fire seemed to have picked up again, as news alerts announced that Israel was making final preparationsfor a ground invasion.

"They must stop," said Saed Shabat, 42, whose home in the border town of Beit Hanoun was damaged Thursday night in an F-16 strike that he said killed two people and injured 15. He was speaking of both the Israeli assault and Hamas' continuing barrage.

"What was the use that we got from the rockets?" asked Shabat, who worked in Israel before it withdrew from Gaza in 2005. "What is the advantage we got from Hamas? We lost our work."

There was also a gruesome reminder of the internecine tensions in Gaza over Israel. Shortly before noon, masked gunmen from al-Qassam killed a man in a public square whom they accused of collaborating with Israel, witnesses said.

Here in Jabalya, scores of men gathered in a tent across the street from where the explosion occurred to mourn the two who died, as Aiman's mother, Saimah Abu Wardah, wept on the floor of the foyer in the family's three-story home.

"Aiman, Aiman," she wailed, as the youngest of her six children, Nancy, 9, sat by her side.

Out in the alley, a bloody shirt remained where Aiman had fallen. The house of Mahmoud, the 4-year-old, across the way was filled with glass and concrete debris from the blast, its front window gone and the walls of the salon behind pockmarked with holes.

Fares Sadallah, Mahmoud's 11-year-old cousin, said he twice tried to get the boy to come inside, to no avail. "I was afraid because there was shelling," said Fares, whose leg bore a bandage over a shrapnel wound. "I was afraid rockets might fall."

A few miles away, at Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, Kandil and Haniyeh held the body of Mohammed Yasser, a child less than a year old, who was one of nine children the Hamas Health Ministry said had been killed since the fighting began Wednesday. The total number of Palestinian deaths rose to 28 on Friday, not including the collaborator, about half of them civilians, health officials said. "These are the blood of our children on our clothes," Haniyeh said as he showed the spatters to a scrum of photojournalists. "This is Egyptian and the Palestinian blood united together."