20 Jan 2009

Palestinians survey devastation to their homes

4:30 pm on 20 January 2009

As Israeli troops continue their withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Palestinians are returning home to scenes of devastation.

Garbage is pilling up on the streets, sewage lines have been ruptured, drinking water is scarce and many homes still standing do not have electricity.

The World Health Organisation says these conditions expose people to the risk of disease.

The United Nations has warned that rebuilding Gaza will cost billions of dollars, and that hundreds of millions more are needed for immediate humanitarian aid.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has pledged $1 billion for rebuilding.

The UN says tens of thousands of people have been left homeless after the three-week offensive by Israel, and 400,000 still have no water.

One Hamas official said 5,000 homes, 16 government buildings and 20 mosques were destroyed and 20,000 houses damaged.

In Jabalya refugee camp, the scene of heavy fighting, not a house was unscathed. Huge piles of uncollected rubbish rotted on street corners and children scavenged for empty plastic bottles.

Israel's forces were expected to fully withdraw from Gaza by Tuesday, before Barack Obama is sworn in as United States president.

Israel was seen by some as keen to have its troops back home by the time Mr Obama takes office to avoid any friction with its closest ally's new leader.

Israel reopened three border crossings to allow more basic goods to reach the territory of 1.5 million Palestinians.

Death toll

Palestinians emerged from hiding, shocked at the killing of more than 1,300 fellow residents of Gaza and at the widespread destruction of homes and government infrastructure.

Israel put its dead at 10 soldiers and three civilians.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has declared the mission accomplished, noting diplomatic efforts by the United States, Egypt and European nations to prevent Hamas rearming.

That would mean as yet unspecified measures to stop Hamas smuggling weapons across the Egypt-Gaza frontier, a sensitive matter given Cairo's past efforts to play down its scope.