GAZA CITY, Palestine: Palestinian Ibrahim Mohammad al-Toum, 85, sleeps on the floor on a thin mattress in a Gaza schoolroom, displaced for the third time in six years.
A farmer of oranges and lemons, his house in northern Gaza City has been bombed in each of the three Israeli-Palestinian conflicts since 2008. He has no idea why he has been singled out in this way.
“Why did they do it? Why? It is unfair, unfair! I am a peaceful man!” he said, sitting on the mattress in the schoolroom, surrounded by members of his extended family.
At any rate, he will not blame the Palestinian authorities in the Gaza Strip, a coastal enclave of 1.8 million people dominated since 2007 by the Islamist Hamas faction.
Israel says Hamas is responsible because it uses residential areas as arms depots and launchpads for rockets, drawing Israeli strikes.
But Toum said it was up to powers outside Gaza to do something to end the conflict, not authorities inside.
“The Arab countries were asleep when Israel struck,” Toum said. “The solution is with the Arab countries, with America to put pressure on Israel. I don’t want more war, why was there a war?”
Egypt is mediating a new round of indirect peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis.
But with the Middle East gripped by a series of crises from Libya to Iraq, attention paid by the Arab world to the Palestinian cause is less than it used to be.
This is despite a higher death toll – 1,938 Palestinians and 67 Israelis – than in past Gaza clashes.
Local rights activists say the monthlong conflict has displaced around 520,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and at least half of them, like Toum and his family, have been staying in United Nations refugee camps in schools.
With a new cease-fire agreed late Sunday, some families started to return to their homes from the camps Monday, carrying bags and mattresses on their backs or loading up donkey carts.
Toum is not sure how he will repair his house again. When the Israelis warned it would bomb his district last month, the father of 10 fled Gaza’s northern Tawam neighborhood.
Tawam used to be covered in farms but over Toum’s lifetime it has given way to concrete houses that have squeezed the rural land. Toum is worried that his citrus trees have not received enough water during the war and he expects they are dead.
The neighborhood has suffered relatively light damage in battles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants this time. Several homes have been destroyed and one of the mosques is wrecked, its dome lying amid rubble.
When the fighting began, Toum traveled to the U.N. camp in the school on a donkey cart with members of his family, taking only two mattresses and a coarse gray blanket, which four of them would later share.
His simple concrete house was hit shortly afterward, causing parts of two of its four floors to collapse. Toum tried to return with his 75-year-old wife Amena several days later but the area was too dangerous.
“When I and my wife went back to try to take belongings, they bombed it again, during Ramadan. We did not have the Eid feast this year because of the war,” he said.
It is an experience he has gone through twice before during his old age. Each time the journey to the camp could take up to one hour “depending on the health of the donkey,” he said.
“In 2008 the planes came and bombed the home. I came to a refugee school in Gaza. We lived on bread and cans of fish for 23 days. Then back to Tawam, and they had destroyed my home,” he said, starting to cry quietly.
He was given 4,000 euros from the United Nations to rebuild the house but four years later it was bombed for a second time.
In 2012, Toum was in the bedroom when the shelling started. When he returned after several days in a refugee camp, the bedroom walls were pitted with bullets and there was a gaping hole near the window.
This time he says he will stay in the school until water and electricity are restored to his home and he feels that the area is safe again. “But nowhere is better than home.”