Report From Ground Zero in Gaza

At the Salah Shehadeh home in Gaza City

The pilot who pressed the button and dropped the bomb; the commanding officer who gave him the order; the Shin Bet agent who reported the houses uninhabited; the engineering expert who promised limited casualties; the Air Force commander who pushed for it and the new chief of staff who supported it; the minister who gave the okay from abroad to drop a one-ton bomb on a house in the heart of a densely populated residential neighborhood in the dead of night and later claimed that he didn't realize what would ensue and boasted that Israel had already dropped 47 bombs just like that one, as if numbers could somehow sanctify the unthinkable; the minister who knew or did not know, and only said in hindsight that it was "100 percent a mistake"; and the prime minister who knew, who made the decision and gave the order, congratulating himself afterward for "one of the most successful actions" ever - none of these people will ever see what he wrought. Not one of them will ever come to the dusty Daraj neighborhood in Gaza to see the horror he caused. More than likely it does not overly concern any of them, aside from the minor "damage to our image" that was quickly shrugged off.

None of these people will have to look Mohammed Matar in the eye: A man who labored for 30 years in Israel, and who this past Sunday lay prostrate on the floor amid the ruins of his house - his eyes and arm bandaged, his daughter and daughter-in-law and four of his grandchildren killed, three of his children wounded; wondering aloud, "Why have they done this to us?" The pilot, the commanding officer, the agent, the expert, the minister and the head of the government will not visit the dozens of apartments destroyed along with everything inside them, entire chapters of entire lives, totally destroyed. They won't see the survivors, whose only sin was in being neighbors of the wrong man, who wander among the ruins of their homes, grieving, bandaged, limping, unable to believe their eyes - everything they had, reduced to dust.

The first thing you notice at the bomb site is the color gray. Gray rubble. Gray apartments, the exposed bricks gray, the broken cement gray, a film of gray dust everywhere. Many of the buildings surrounding the home of the targeted Salah Shehadeh remain standing, only their contents destroyed utterly, from the force of the explosion. You walk through the apartments, stepping on the layers of destruction, barely recognizable bits and pieces debris: Was that a closet? That over there, a television? And this the bed?

Of the house where Shehadeh, head of the military wing of Hamas, was hiding out, nothing remained but three columns of concrete, from one of which the green flag of Hamas now flutters. This was a smart bomb nonpareil: It left no trace of the wanted man or anyone in his near vicinity: Shehadeh, his wife, his daughter and his companions. Bricks, bones, all gone. Nothing left.

Houses here are all jammed together. Three multi-family buildings of three stories each, nearly contiguous, where most of the deaths occurred, 15 in all. Two more apartment buildings nearby were also destroyed, and they weren't shacks either, as the defense establishment tried to claim the day after the bombing, attempting to rationalize the killings. These were permanent dwellings with corrugated tin roofs, and three people from the Al-Hweiti family were killed in them: Mona, a young woman of 22, Subhi, 5, and Mohammed, 3. Nearby buildings on all sides were also damaged by the explosion.

On the third floor of the Matar family home, where seven people died, six of them infants and children (the highest toll of any of the families involved), iron supports are already in place to keep the ceiling from collapsing on the surviving residents still living there. "This is the Israeli peace," and "These are American weapons," wrote someone on the wall in English.

Four days after the bombing, nearly everyone's gone but the residents themselves, who are easy to identify: they're still bandaged, in shock. The Saidi family's home, across from the wanted man's: No deaths here, only wounded. The remains of a green doorway lead to the remains of a living room which opens on the remains of a bedroom. Twenty children were sleeping in this house when the bomb was dropped. Their grandmother, Amna Saidi, 55, was already asleep when the bomb fell on the neighbors. She says she woke up suddenly to tremendous noise and a huge ball of flame. No, there was no big boom, but everything shook. She was sure it was an earthquake. Her grandson Lwai, 40 days old, fell out of his cradle but he's fine now, safe in his mother Mirfat's arms.

On the night of the bombing, Mirfat was in her apartment on the third floor, watching a late-evening broadcast from Dubai on television. Her husband, Khalil, went up to the roof to escape the unbearable heat. Their five children were asleep. One of them now retrieves the pieces of a doll from the debris and puts it back together again. Mirfat, her face pale, says that everything was forced into the apartment by the blast. She finds it hard to describe.

What will you do?

"We have nowhere to go," she says faintly. Their neighbors are helping in the meantime, with clothing and food.

There were injuries in the Bughdadi family and the Suq family and the Hijazzi family. The latter's home was half wrecked as was the television repair workshop in front of it. The dead came from the Matar, Al-Hweiti and A-Shawwa families, and of course the Shehadeh family.

Green canaries are dead in their cages. "The American bomb killed our birds," whispers a child, clutching one of the cages. Khaled Saidi, in his mid-thirties, had a hobby: raising songbirds. His house is full of cages, large and small. Now they're all jumbled up on the floor, the little corpses inside. Khaled is gone. Here's his picture on the wall. No one knows where Khaled is. Maybe he couldn't stand the sight of his dead birds. A plaster bas-relief with the words "Our Jerusalem" is broken in two. The destruction on the third floor is worse.

The house on the other side of the destroyed Shehadeh hideout was the Matar family's home. The deaths aren't self-evident now in the partially destroyed appearance of the house. Ra'ed Matar from the second floor lost his wife and his three children here: Iman, 27, Dalia, 5, Mohammed, 3, and Aiman, 18 months. Ra'ed's brother Rami, on the third floor, lost his baby daughter Dina, two months old. Mohammed Matar, Rami's and Ra'ed's father, on the first floor, lost his daughter Alaa, 10, his daughter-in-law and four grandchildren. He and three of his own children were hospitalized with injuries. All this in one multi-story building.

A bloodstained white T-shirt lies in the very narrow yard that separates the Matar house from its neighbor. This is where they found the body of the infant Aiman, two days after the bombing. Aiman, eighteen months old, who was on the second floor, was blown away, together with his crib, and landed in this narrow yard, where his body was buried under the rubble. Only the stench from the yard drew the rescuers there, to find his corpse.

Mohammed Matar, the bereaved father and grandfather, was three days in the hospital. Only on his release did they tell him the extent of his bereavement: his daughter, his daughter-in-law and four grandchildren. A large man wearing a dirty gray jalabiyya, he is lying on the ground, his strength nearly gone, leaning on one arm. He was asleep when the bomb fell. He says he woke up and saw things flying every which way, burying him. Blood dripped from one eye. He managed to rescue his grandson Ibrahim, cold, barefoot, his clothing in tatters, who was buried by debris and clings now to his injured grandfather. Today they operated on his son Mohammed, who was also injured. His son Ra'ed, bandaged, is walking around in the rubble and soon Rami will arrive, due to be released today from the hospital.

Mohammed worked for 30 years at the Yakhin canned goods factory in Ashkelon until the current closure. He tells proudly of the letters of commendation he received over the years for his work there, and now he can't find them under all the debris. "This is what we got from them in the end," he mumbles.

What should the Palestinians do now?

"God knows; I don't. Just like they (the Israelis) want to live, we also want to live. The day before, there was almost an agreement with Hamas and the next day they attacked us."

Do you want revenge?

"God takes revenge. Only God does that. What can I say? Fifty years and there's no peace. We hear about peace, but look at us."

A young man comes into the yard, pale and trembling, walking unsteadily, his arm bandaged. This is Ra'ed. Rami has come home from the hospital but he doesn't yet know that his daughter was killed. Please, no one tell Rami, requests Ra'ed: He wants to do that. Let's take Rami to a friend's house, Ra'ed tells his father: a house some distance away from here. Then Ra'ed, who lost his wife and three children, will somehow tell his brother that he has lost his baby daughter.