GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — With safe passage promised by a 12-hour humanitarian cease-fire, residents of the areas hardest hit by fighting in Gaza returned to their homes Saturday. They could not believe what they saw.
Many roads were barely passable, and almost silent. Women did not wail. Men looked stunned. Their neighborhoods were reduced to ugly piles of gray dust, shattered cement block and twisted rebar.
Huge bomb craters marked the spot where, on Friday, four-story apartment blocks had stood. On some streets, it seemed as if every house was riddled with bullet holes or shrapnel spray, charred by flames, or leveled.
The scale of the damage from Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire was the worst seen in the 19 days since Israel launched its offensive. Much of the damage witnessed Saturday had occurred in the past 24 to 48 hours as diplomats debated the terms of a possible truce.
"It looks like an earthquake," said Rafet Sukar at the front door of his home on the main street in Shijaiyah, a residential district east of central Gaza City. The back half of his house was gone. "It was a miracle we got out of here alive," said Rami Sukar, his brother.
The tops of mosque minarets — perhaps sources of sniper fire — were blasted away. Schools and hospitals were peppered with shrapnel from missiles and shells that struck within their perimeters.
Water pump stations were blown up, electrical lines toppled onto the streets, the main roads blocked by deep impact craters.
At the front lines, within sight of the concrete wall that separates the Gaza Strip from Israel, fresh trails from Israeli tanks and combat bulldozers snaked through backyard gardens and rolled over greenhouses. Fires still smoldered as the first reporters and residents reached the towns on the front.
There was no looting, nor any police on the streets. Ambulances struggled to reach the dead. Search crews followed bulldozers that cleared a path. There were reports of wounded still trapped in buildings. The Gaza Health Ministry said its crews had recovered at least 85 bodies Saturday.
According to the ministry, more than 1,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza in the course of the 19-day campaign.
It was obvious the recovery would take time. In some places, the odor of bodies was so strong that passers-by gagged. "It will take more than 12 hours to dig them out," said Yussif Abid al-Hamid, an emergency medical technician wearing latex gloves and trying to get his mask back over his nose. "We need heavy equipment here. We need earth movers. We can't dig with our bare hands."
There were many dead animals, too. Donkeys, horses and cows were scattered at the edges of fields and in marketplaces. The farm towns at the edges of Gaza are where the shepherds live, and in the shelling, they were forced to abandon their flocks. Down one lane, two men carried a cage filled with songbirds. Some who came home to gather up belongings left with a few cans of fruit or a half-gallon of cooking oil.
Local reporters and Gaza residents said the scale of destruction in the areas targeted exceeded damage done in the wars of 2009 and 2012.
Neighborhoods visited by reporters just a day earlier were transformed. Mohammad Shawesh returned to his home in Beit Hanoun on Saturday morning, thinking there might be some minor damage. It was a wreck.