By Erin Cunningham for semi-autonomous collective

“We have nothing left, even our houses,” says Ibrahim Jaleel, crouched in front of what is left of his home in Rafah in the Gaza Strip — a contorted mass of concrete, metal and household appliances. “We’re not even allowed to get the materials to rebuild.”

A “unilateral cease-fire” called by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Saturday night gave Palestinians the chance to emerge — and some cases even return home after having been displaced — on Sunday to assess the damage wreaked on them by the devastating Israeli assault that has been raging for over three weeks and has killed at least 1,200 Palestinians, one-third of them children, according to both Gaza health officials and the United Nations.

Despite the recent carnage, which carried on until the last minutes before the 2:00am cease-fire deadline on Sunday, there is a palpable sense of relief in the air. Shops are opening their doors for business — selling everything from falafel and Saudi soda to clothes and barrels of petrol — and children have even taken to playing pick-up games of football in the all-too-ubiquitous rubble.

© 2009 Erin Cunningham

© 2009 Erin Cunningham

Witnessing the destruction and constant bombardment of the past several days, it seems Gazans will seize any chance to live even a moment of normalcy amid an all-out war on their territory, which some are calling the deadliest ever. But the low, menacing whine of unmanned drones in the sky above is a crude reminder that no, for the people of Gaza, this war is not yet over.

In Rafah, a divided city that straddles the besieged enclave’s southern border with Egypt, it looks like a wasteland. Homes and other buildings have not only been struck by missiles, but completely leveled by some of Israel’s most powerful and most sophisticated weaponry. An entire stretch of homes spanning at least one kilometer and facing the Egyptian border are simply gone. The ominous skeleton of a four-storey building looms over the crowds there to dig, pick-up the pieces and salvage what is left of their lives and their families.

The Israeli government says Rafah was targeted for its role in receiving the goods smuggled through tunnels dug under the Egyptian border, and which have proliferated since the elected Islamist movement Hamas took the Gaza Strip from Fatah forces loyal to current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel claims the underground network has allowed Hamas to arm itself with more deadly weapons capable of landing deeper into Israeli territory.

© 2009 Erin Cunningham

© 2009 Erin Cunningham

Even if this is the case, local Gazans are saying, the tunnels were a vital lifeline to a population economically starved by its neighbors. As a testament to that, even the goods sold at local kiosks are caked with the dirt of the subterranean passageways. Regardless, Rafah’s destruction is both devastating and indiscriminate. Rifling through his belongings atop a mound of wreckage, Abdel Karim, a 24-year-old Palestinian journalist, decries the apparent randomness of the Israeli attacks that have so far hit hospitals, schools, the United Nations and humanitarian convoys.

“What could they possibly want to bomb here?” he asks with tears in his eyes. “My only computer? My cans of food? My mother? The ironic thing is, I’m actually a supporter of Fatah.”
But despite the relative calm of Sunday, many are skeptical their lives will be peaceful for long. And those who are returning to Rafah during the lull may not have somewhere to flee a second time around, if Israel decides to break the cease-fire. The UN says at least 800 families were forced to leave the area.

“I don’t believe the Israeli government when they say they will stop killing us,” says 12-year-old Wafa as she emerges from her debris-littered bedroom. “They have never been anything but destructive to us, and I can still hear the drones.”
Just hours before the cease-fire, Israeli missiles were striking residential areas in both Rafah and Khan Younis, one of the narrow coastal territory’s major population centers ‑- falling just outside the walls of Khan Younis’ main hospital – and F16s swept low over the cities, sending people running in terror.

As Ehud Olmert was announcing the cease-fire on television, battleship machine guns pounded targets near the Khan Younis coastline, cutting the city’s power for the night. So when the missile-carrying drones, what locals call “zananah”, or pest, for their incessant buzzing, a Palestinian woman and her three daughters were sifting through the ruins of her home, they looked warily toward the sky. “Every day we live our lives in fear,” she said. “They say there is a cease-fire, but we don’t know. The power is in their hands. I don’t know if I’m safe right now, in my home, I don’t know if I’ll ever be safe again.”

Erin shared a set of 45 compelling, magistral photos taken last week in Gaza City, added to the already existing Flickr account. You can check them here. Warning: some pictures may not be suitable to sensitive individuals.

Erin Cunningham is a journalist based in Cairo and is collaborating with Semi-autonomous Collective since January 2009 as a special correspondant in the Gaza Strip.