As dawn broke over the Gaza Strip the morning after the Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jaabari was assassinated, I looked out of my hotel window over beach to sea, trying to work out where the firing was coming from. It is a conflict cliche that life carries on regardless, but this beach scene was astonishing. As naval boats fired artillery rounds at unknown targets on the Gaza coastline, fishermen stood thigh-deep in the surf, casting off their reels, unflinching as booms exploded around them. Several early-morning joggers pounded rhythmically along the sand. Couples strolled hand in hand, bare-foot, holding their shoes in their hands.
How can a community become so inured to war that couples can enjoy a beach sunrise under heavy artillery fire? Four days into Operation Pillar of Defence, with more than 49 dead and several hundred injured, most shops have now closed. There are fewer people on the streets, but children still run around in droves, kicking their footballs beneath speeding trucks and hanging out on street corners.
By Sunday, 140 children had been injured and 10 killed in this latest battle over Gaza. At every pile of rubble I visited, strapped into my flak jacket, cradling my hard helmet marked "Press", to inspect the remains of the latest Israeli air strike, there were always an inexplicable number of shoes strewn amid the debris, and shoeless children playing.
The multi-storey home of one errant Hamas leader, Suleiman Salah, known more commonly as Abu Hassan, had been reduced to a large mound of sand, plasterboard and wiring. The walls of all the surrounding homes had been blown off, and a rescue operation to remove 26 people trapped in the mess had just ended. But one little boy had become fascinated by a black, shiny beetle scurrying through the shattered masonry. The squeal of an outgoing rocket passed overhead as he chased through the legs of older boys after the elusive bug, wielding a plastic cup. Finally, he trapped it and sat down, delighted, on a piece of fallen plaster to examine his new pet. Perhaps it's children like this who grow up to be young men jogging through gun battles. In Gaza, there will be far too many of them.
- I interviewed Abu Ahmad nine months ago and thought he was a genial bear of a man. A leader of the military wing of Hamas, he serves particularly sweet coffee and has an easy laugh. It's this cheery demeanour that makes his casual comments about the necessary destruction of the state of Israel and the dangers posed by the international Jewish community so jarring.
I came to Gaza on Wednesday to speak with him again. Violence between Gaza's militant factions and the Israeli military had flared up. People were warning of another Israeli incursion, maybe a campaign of targeted assassinations. Was he worried? He answered with one of his shoulder-heaving chuckles. "If I was really worried, do you think I would be sitting here, drinking coffee with you?"
Two hours later, Jaabari was being pulled out of his car in pieces. I think Ahmad and his colleagues in Hamas were as shocked as I was.
- The main lobby at the Al Deira Hotel in Gaza City has become a newsroom. The ever-patient reception manager Ayman smiles wearily through bloodshot eyes at every anxious bark from a journalist disconnected from the internet on deadline. We live in dread of a coffee shortage. As we sat around a dining table one evening, filing copy and smoking furiously, one of us looked up. The correspondents of major American, Australian, Spanish and British broadsheets were all writing together, all of us women. The remarkable thing, we agreed, is that there is nothing remarkable about that at all.