A look inside devastated Gaza | ET REALITY

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For a few brief moments, the two-story house on the outskirts of Bureij, a ruined city in central Gaza, still looked like a Palestinian home.

On a shelf were bottles of nail polish, perfume, and hair gel, untouched. A collection of refrigerator magnets decorated the frame of a mirror. Through a window you could see clothes hanging on a neighbor’s clothesline, swaying in the gentle breeze.

But despite the characteristics of the home, the house now has a new function: that of an improvised Israeli military barracks.

Since Israeli ground forces recently forced their way into this part of central Gaza, a unit of the military’s 188th Brigade has taken over the building, using it as a dormitory, warehouse and observation deck.

On Monday, some soldiers were waiting for orders in the ground-floor living room or standing guard on the terrace above. One bedroom was filled with soldiers’ backpacks and equipment.

The walls of the house were stained with Hebrew graffiti. “The people of Israel,” read one message, written in black spray paint.

The people of Gaza were nowhere to be seen.

The house was emblematic of the ruined wasteland that two New York Times journalists witnessed on a three-hour trip with Israeli soldiers through Gaza on Monday morning.

Since Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups attacked Israel on October 7, killing about 1,200 people, according to officials, Israel has struck Gaza from the air and captured much of it on the ground, causing widespread death and destruction. .

According to Gaza officials, some 23,000 Gazans have been killed in the Israeli campaign – about 1 percent of the population. According to the United Nations, more than 80 percent of the enclave’s residents have been displaced. About 60 percent of buildings have been damaged, the UN has also saying.

As we traveled through central Gaza on Monday, each village bore the marks of war. Some buildings had collapsed completely, their floors stacked on top of each other like stacks of books. The apartment blocks, with entire sections missing, were in a precarious state of preservation. Bureij’s house was missing an exterior wall. A nearby grove had been razed, plants uprooted and the earth turned to mud.

Ultimately, all buildings near the house would most likely be destroyed, a senior commander said, once the army blew up a network of Hamas tunnels it said lay beneath them.

“They destroyed everything: the buildings, the infrastructure, the farmland,” Hazem al-Madhoun, 35, an aid worker sheltering nearby with his family on Monday morning, said of the Israeli army.

“We had a very bad experience,” al-Madhoun said in a telephone interview after his family fled to a less dangerous part of Gaza on Monday night.

Soldiers leading the tour said the damage had been predominantly the fault of Hamas, both because the Oct. 7 attack forced Israel to act and because the group’s fighters had embedded themselves in residential areas, using civilians as human shields.

The Israeli military brought journalists to Bureij and the neighboring town of Maghazi to try to emphasize that point. They highlighted the proximity of Hamas military facilities (including a rocket warehouse and a building that soldiers said was a weapons plant) and nearby civilian infrastructure.

Maj. Gen. Itai Veruv, a commander on the front, pointed to residential apartment blocks from which, he said, Hamas fighters had fired at the Israeli army and soldiers were forced to return fire at the buildings.

“I’m trying to avoid hitting those towers, but we have no choice,” General Veruv said. “Harm is not the goal. “It’s a side effect.”

Troops showed off an arsenal of rockets, each about three meters long, contained in a shed near a major civilian highway, a telecommunications depot and a clothing warehouse. On the wall was a Hamas logo.

Soldiers also took journalists to a civilian steel mill where they said Hamas had manufactured ammunition. Both locations contained large shafts that soldiers believed were connected to a vast network of tunnels, hundreds of kilometers long. Much of the damage visible above the surface, the soldiers said, was to help destroy what could not be seen immediately below the surface: a labyrinth of passageways from where, they said, Hamas conducts its military operations, stores weapons and save some of the weapons. surviving 240 hostages captured on October 7.

A third tunnel opening was found in a one-story farmhouse. The military did not allow journalists to enter the wells to verify how they were used, citing the possible presence of explosives and dangerous chemicals.

Soldiers had torn down the walls of houses in Bureij, such as the one where the 188th Brigade was stationed, because it was too dangerous to enter through the front door, General Veruv said. Hamas, he added, often has booby-trapped entrances. A grove of trees next to the village may have been filled with land mines, prompting the army to level it, one of his subordinates said.

“I do not come to take revenge,” said General Veruv. “I come because it is necessary.”

To accompany the soldiers, Times journalists agreed not to photograph a digital map inside the Israeli military vehicle or the faces of some special forces fighters. The Times did not allow the Israeli military to leak its coverage before publication.

The Times agreed to those conditions to ensure exceptional wartime access to Gaza, which has been off-limits to foreign journalists except when embedded in the Israeli military or, in one case, an Emirati aid group.

Otherwise, reporting in Gaza has been a great challenge: dozens of Palestinian journalists have been killed by Israeli attacks; Hamas has imposed restrictions on the media; and telecommunications networks have frequently failed, sometimes due to direct Israeli intervention, according to US officials.

Bureij is a place mutilated by war: roads reduced to dust, columns of smoke rising from the rubble, living rooms exposed to the wind. Occasionally, there were moments of fleeting beauty: a bright yellow parakeet, perhaps escaped from an abandoned house, darting past an Israeli tank; a pause in gunshots interrupted by birdsong.

Throughout the morning, fighting was heard throughout the area, mostly machine gun fire and shelling, as Israeli troops advancing towards Gaza clashed with Hamas fighters.

Mr. al-Madhoun, the aid worker, said members of his family had almost been caught in the crossfire when they began their journey south on Monday morning, helped by an aid group that coordinated their safe passage with the Israeli army, sharing the family’s coordinates and license plates with the soldiers.

“We were evacuated under bullets,” al-Madhoun said.

The death toll in Gaza has sparked accusations that Israel is committing genocide, a charge that will be brought before the International Court of Justice in The Hague on Thursday.

But, according to the Israeli government and General Veruv, the army is doing everything it can to preserve civilian life in a battle against an enemy unaffected by such concerns.

“For me, it’s not a war of revenge,” he said. “I feel a lot of sympathy for the people here.”

Among military bases, however, there were signs of a less benign attitude. Self-recorded videos have emerged of Israeli soldiers destroying or searching for belongings found in Gaza homes, or writing disrespectful graffiti on walls.

In Bureij’s house, a soldier had written a message in Hebrew that seemed to mock another soldier for not killing anyone.

“Sapir has no X,” the graffiti said.

In military jargon, an X refers to the notch that some soldiers carve into their rifle after shooting someone dead.

Outside, a lone white-haired goat wandered across the bumpy landscape. His Gaza owners had fled, leaving him to sniff out the tracks of an Israeli tank.

Johnatan Reiss contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, and Ameera Harouda from Doha, Qatar.

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