THE GROUND TREMBLED slightly and the dull thud of shells, slamming into northern Gaza, could be heard as our taxi drove into Gaza City, through the narrow streets and bombed out buildings. Donkeys pulling carts struggled to make their way through rotting garbage, collapsed electricity pylons, ripped up tar roads and crumbling, grimey apartments.
Nearly a million and a half people, 70% of them unemployed and 50% of them living below the poverty line, are crammed into this tiny poverty-stricken strip of land, 40km long by 10km wide.
While the international media focused on the escalating crisis in Lebanon during recent weeks, the almost daily bombings and deaths in Gaza took second stage. Approximately 200 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, electricity is still periodically cut off and food and medicine-laden trucks continue to be held up at the border for "security reasons".
What began as an Israeli offensive into Gaza, ostensibly to free the abducted Israeli soldier, Gilad Shilat, and stop the firing of Qassem rockets into Israel, has evolved into a series of "pin-prick military operations", in Israeli military parlance, during which many homes, a number of Palestinian ministry compounds have been destroyed and many civilians killed.
Israel presently has over 10,000 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in jail, most of whom were abducted form their homes at night and most of whom are being held without trial.
"There are no leaders here to interview," said the bemused and bearded young man at the Hamas office, looking at me with a mixture of suspicion and amusement. "They are all in hiding." Indeed many of the new Palestinian government's leaders have gone underground, following the abduction and attempted assassination of several Hamas leaders.
In the eastern Gaza City neighbourhood of Shijaiya billowing smoke from shells and burning tyres blanketed the air. Hooded fighters, dressed in fatigues and flak jackets and armed with Kalashnikov rifles and walkie-talkies, crouched on every street corner, their attention focused ahead where a Merkava tank opened fire with artillery rounds and intermittent shells.
Armed gunmen thronged the streets, the majority of them from Hamas, but some also from Islamic Jihad and Fatah.
Machine guns, mounted on top of the Merkava tanks, raked the streets as the Israelis traded fire with Palestinian gunmen and shells thudded across the neighbourhood. Overhead an unmanned drone, (known as zanana in Arabic), armed...