By Douglas Hamilton
JABALYA, Gaza, Jan 19 (Reuters) - The destruction is total, as if a terrible earthquake had struck. But this was no natural disaster.
Once there were citrus orchards and olive groves here, locals say, big homes with courtyards and scratching chickens.
Now there is nothing but shattered buildings, thrown up in the air and half-buried, tossed in a pitching sea of ploughed-up earth, a bizarre vista of devastation.
They are the ruins left behind from a three-week Israeli assault, an offensive undertaken, Israel said, to stop Hamas militants firing rockets into Israeli towns and cities.
Palestinians on Monday surveyed the broken, blackened wreckage of East Jabalya, a neighbourhood with the misfortune to occupy a high ridge above the city of Gaza.
Israeli forces wanted it. They pounded it with bombs, blasted it with tanks, then bulldozed the trees and gardens to get a clear firing platform overlooking the streets below.
Some parts of Gaza city look strangely normal after 22 days of non-stop bombardment by air land and sea. There are streets quite unscathed, apart from broken windows and rotting garbage.
But drive up into the suburb that once sat proudly on the ridge, and it’s as if one had turned a corner of Stalingrad, a dark scene from some World War Two battle of annihilation.
Fighting was heavy here, say the locals. But most civilians had already fled to the shelter of U.N.-run schools in the city. Now roofless, they squat among the twisted concrete of what used to be their homes, cooking scraps of food over camp fires in blackened living rooms missing their outside walls.
Men scavenge precariously under giant slabs of fractured concrete, looking for blankets, door-frames, timber, pictures, books — anything dear or still useful that they could pull from the ruins of their lives.
"There is no garden, no trees, no stones, no house," says Amna Abueide, whose three-storey house lies collapsed, like a tiered cake of cement smashed by a sledgehammer.
Her daughter Fatma, 29, stares at the family cat prowling over splintered walls, sniffing his former home now mysteriously transformed.
Nearby a goat lies dead. But a neighbour has found the kid, bleating for food. Mohamed Abed, 47, has gathered seven white chickens in the shell of his house. Exploded Israeli 155mm shells lie outside.
"This was what brought the phosphorus," he says. "It was almost beautiful, like fireworks. The children tried to stamp out the fire, but that stuff burns even in water."
Israel is accused of using white phosphorus during its assault, a weapon not banned, but one rights groups say was employed indiscriminately, accusing Israel of war crimes. Israel has said all its weapons were used legally.
Abed’s fridge is a blackened, gutless shell. One of the chickens is being made into soup, the hacked off feet discarded.
"I am going to put up a small tent and live here again," says Fatma. "But who will help me build our house again?"
Her husband Abdallah, 32, is dark-faced.
A stench, apparently of some hidden corpse, wafts from the ruins. Returning Palestinian families pick their way gingerly through the jumbled geography of their old neighbourhood.
"We were not even sure at first where the house had been, because the streets are gone," says one man.
Now there is nothing but red-raw earth, ripped up and smashed down again under tank and bulldozer tracks, fruit trees flattened to a fibrous pulp, their branches skinned.
A collie dog slinks fearfully by, bewildered and jumpy.
Incessantly above is the whine of Israeli surveillance drones. "These things brought destruction to Gaza," says a teenage boy, staring up at the sky with fierce eyes.
As night falls, campfires glow in the ruins.
In a dark, blast-scorched cave of broken concrete lumps dangling from buckled reinforcement rods, a place that used to be someone’s kitchen, there is something alive under a cheap plastic chair. A white rabbit huddles trembling, its nose blackened with soot. It twitches agitatedly but makes no move to escape. (Editing by Dominic Evans)