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Gazans heading back to their homes - if they exist

Photo: Free Gaza
Damage inflicted by Israeli airstrikes on Rafah town homes in the Gaza Strip

19 January 2009 (IRIN)

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

As relative calm settles over Gaza for the first time in three weeks following the Israeli ceasefire, the scale of the humanitarian crisis is becoming evident. Some 100 bodies have been discovered in areas that were previously inaccessible.

The grim discovery brings the Gaza death toll since the Israeli offensive began on 27 December 2008 to over 1,300, according to officials of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNWRA) - and that number is expected to rise. Over 5,400 have been wounded.

Israel has tightly controlled information during its military operation, not allowing foreign correspondents into the Strip, although some Israeli media were allowed in briefly - but under the supervision of the Israeli army spokesperson's unit.

News agencies still operating in Gaza report that many of the civilians who had fled their homes over the past few weeks were heading back, carrying whatever they had on donkeys.

But many will find they have nowhere to return to, aid agencies said. It is now estimated - by the Israeli army in conjunction with some Palestinian sources on the ground - that the Israeli army destroyed some 15 percent of buildings in Gaza and severely damaged infrastructural facilities.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) released an update on 17 January describing the difficult situation in hospitals across Gaza.

"Although Shifa hospital continues to function in an effective manner, its capacity to cope with the high number of patients is stretched to the limit. Apart from receiving and treating the newly injured, it has had to care for 60 patients evacuated from Al-Quds Hospital and a rehabilitation centre in Gaza City, both damaged by shelling on 15 January," the ICRC said.

In the meantime, the influx of injured people continues.

"Most of the wounds we're treating are blast injuries," said Samir Kazkaz, a Qatari Red Crescent surgeon who recently joined the ICRC surgical team at Al-Shifa Hospital. "They are horrific and often require amputations. Twelve seriously injured people have had limbs amputated over the past 48 hours," Kazkaz said on 17 January.

Israel's newly appointed coordinator for humanitarian aid to Gaza, Welfare Minister Issac Herzog, toured southern Israel on 18 January, but his office has not yet said anything about humanitarian aid for Gaza.