The morning ritual goes like this: three-year-old Ali Misharawi wakes up and reaches for his father's cellphone. He kisses and strokes the face of his baby brother, Omar, on its small screen. Then he starts asking questions. Why is Omar in paradise? Why did you put my brother into the ground? Why can't I play with him anymore?
"He asks a lot of questions. Every day he asks if Omar is alive or dead. He knows what happened, he was there, but he needs to make sense of it," said his father, Jihad Misharawi, whose family was devastated in an inferno on the first full day of last month's war. Eleven-month-old Omar and his 19-year-old sister-in-law, Heba, were killed instantly. Misharawi's brother, Ahmed (18), suffered burns to 85% of his body and died after 12 days in intensive care.
Three weeks later, Gaza City has almost returned to what passes for normal in this overcrowded, impoverished and war-ravaged strip of land. But the city bears the ugly physical scars of eight days of intensive bombardment by Israel: mounds of crushed masonry, twisted metal and shattered glass that were previously homes, offices or public buildings. The Israeli military said it struck 1 500 targets during the offensive, an average of 187 a day.
According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, 167 people were killed, a majority of whom were civilians, including 35 children. Six Israelis were also killed.
Before a massive triumphalist rally marking both the Islamist organisation's 25th anniversary and what Hamas leaders claimed was its victory over Israel in the war, the streets of Gaza City were festooned with green Hamas bunting.
"We believe Israel lost this war and victory is ours," Taher al-Nounou, a Hamas official, told me a few days before the rally. "Not a military victory, but a victory for our will."
Despite the scale of devastation and casualties, he said: "They tried to destroy our government and failed. They tried to stop Hamas rockets and failed. After six years of isolation, we are more powerful than ever before."
Hamdi Shaqqura of the human rights centre accused Israel of "an offensive against civilians and civilian targets". Victory or defeat was a political interpretation, he said. "I'm concerned with the loss of human life and civilian property. This has been horrific for the civilian population of Gaza." He said more than 1000 people were injured, 96% of whom were civilians and some of whom suffered "permanent injury".
Hamas political officials and military commanders were believed to have spent the war sheltering in a network of underground bunkers and tunnels, although al-Nounou said that "all the Hamas leadership were working regularly in their offices". Above ground, in a city with no public bomb shelters and no air-raid warning system, the civilian population huddled in their homes, awaiting the next shuddering blast.
Some desperately tried to move their families to more secure locations, only to realise there were no safe places. One family I met on a roadside during the offensive were waiting for a taxi to take them and a few belongings stuffed into plastic bags to the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood, which they believed would not be targeted. The next day it was the scene of a massive air strike that destroyed the home of the Dalou family and killed 12 people, including four children.
Israel insisted its airstrikes were precision-targeted at legitimate sites: weapons stores, Hamas-run government buildings, training and rocket-launching grounds. But it also targeted what it claimed were the homes of militants. In the densely populated residential streets of Gaza City and other towns, relatives and neighbours were killed or injured and adjacent homes suffered extensive damage.
At the site of the Dalou family home, the detritus of family life – odd shoes, half-buried rugs, plastic toys – was visible amid the rubble. Houses on three sides were badly damaged by the explosion; two neighbours were among the dead. Tribute banners showing the four Dalou children – smiling portraits alongside a harrowing picture of their corpses squashed together on a morgue tray – hung from the wreckage.
In a statement emailed to the Guardian in response to a request for an explanation for the bombing, the Israeli Defence Forces said: "The IDF targets only terror-related sites based on carefully collected intelligence. Every possible precaution was taken as the civilians in Gaza were not targets in this operation.
"The Dalou residence was known to the IDF intelligence as a hideout of a senior militant operative in Hamas's rocket-launching infrastructure. While the IDF regrets the loss of life on both sides, the responsibility ultimately lies with terror operatives who use the civil population as human shield when using civilian buildings as hideouts or to store weaponry."
This came as news to Bodour al-Dalou (25), whose mother, brother, two sisters, a sister-in-law, an aunt and four nephews and nieces died in the airstrike. "There were no fighters in the house," she said. "I have no idea why the Israelis targeted us. I have heard they said it was a mistake, but what difference does that make?" – © Guardian News & Media 2012