The beachfront in Gaza has been churned up by war. Ragged parasols poke out of the sand, next to a buckled lifeguard’s chair. And just to one side is the incongruous sight of a Hamas missile launch pad with 20 rockets aimed, said the Israeli army, at Tel Aviv.
“This is a beach, the kind used by normal civilians like us,” said Major Maayan of the Israel Defense Forces engineering corps. “But they also store rockets here. Typical Hamas.”
A short time later, IDF sappers rig the pad with explosives and blow it up, sending a fireball into the sky and a dust cloud that blots out the sun. The smell of burning spreads across the seafront.
It is another small operation in what is turning into the deadliest war in the long, bitter conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, a reckoning of sorts that has ratcheted up tensions across the Middle East and is reverberating across the societies of Europe and the US.
As pressure mounts on Israel to agree to a humanitarian ceasefire, its army took a group of foreign journalists to Gaza on Thursday to justify the tactics they are deploying against Hamas, a foe embedded in the civilian fabric of the enclave. The group saw a hellscape reminiscent of Stalingrad, Grozny or Aleppo. At times, it seemed not a single building had been spared destruction.
Normally one of the most densely populated areas on earth, northern Gaza is eerily empty. From the start of the war, Israel has been ordering its inhabitants to move south, away from the fighting, a process aid groups have denounced as a forced displacement.
Vast numbers have heeded the warnings to relocate, although thousands remain in pockets of northern Gaza, some prevented from leaving by poor health. UN agencies said that even in the south, civilians are not safe from Israeli strikes, while Israel’s siege of the strip, home to 2.3mn people, has deepened its humanitarian crisis.
At the same time, the exodus from large areas of the north has given Israel a freer hand to act against what it calls Hamas’s terror infrastructure — its launch pads, tunnels and command posts, which it says are often in or near civilian installations such as schools, mosques and residential blocks.
“The moment we evacuated civilians from here, the fighting became much easier,” said Lieutenant Colonel Adoniram, also of the engineering corps. “Hamas has no one, no women and kids, to hide behind any more.” It is a new experience for Adoniram, who IDF rules dictate can only be referred to by first name and rank. He is a veteran of the war with Lebanese militants Hizbollah in 2006 and the 2008-09 and 2014 Gaza campaigns. “But then we fought differently,” he said.
This conflict is on a larger scale. The IDF has gone deeper into Gaza, and bombed harder, in pursuit of much more ambitious objectives: destroying Hamas and eradicating it from the strip.
It was Hamas’s devastating rampage through the kibbutzim and small towns of southern Israel on October 7 that triggered such vehement retaliation. The attack left more than 1,400 people dead, according to Israeli officials, and 240 hostages remain in Hamas’s hands.
In the weeks since, Israel has mounted a ferocious bombardment of Gaza and a ground invasion that encircled its main population centre, Gaza City. More than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli air and artillery strikes, according to the enclave’s health ministry, many of them women and children. The death toll is already far higher than from all previous conflicts in Gaza combined.
Israel is of the view that a lot of civilian buildings are fair game. “As soon as we realised that all the infrastructure here is linked to terrorism, you have to do something about it,” said Adoniram. “When a mosque is stuffed full of weapons, it’s a military installation, not a civilian one. And the same goes for a kindergarten and a hospital.”
The hospital he and most other Israeli commanders have in mind is al-Shifa, where thousands of people have sought sanctuary. The IDF said it sits atop Hamas command centres and a vast network of tunnels. Hamas and the hospital staff deny that, saying the IDF is trying to create a pretext to strike it. Several hospitals in the strip have already been hit, driving its health system to a state of collapse.
Yet, despite the ferocity of the Israeli operation, it may struggle to achieve its war aim of removing Hamas, an organisation deeply embedded in Gazan society. It is a social movement as well as a militant group, winning Palestinian elections in 2006 and controlling the enclave for the past 16 years.
In its attempts to eradicate Hamas, Israel has reduced entire streets to rubble and flattened multistorey buildings. Hotels, beachside cafés and blocks of flats have crumpled into the sand.
In one block near the seafront, rocking chairs are still visible on the warped concrete floor of a balcony, and bits of the ceiling hang down.
The scale of the destruction and loss of life has exposed Israel to mounting international scrutiny. UN secretarygeneral António Guterres this week warned that Gaza was becoming a “graveyard for children”.
Maayan, whose surname cannot be used, said the destruction was not gratuitous. “We bombed buildings we were being fired [at] from, or our intelligence said were Hamas-related,” he said.
He pointed to a flat on the outskirts of the al-Shati refugee camp where Israeli intelligence officers discovered a huge cache of weapons. They display their find on rugs on the living room floor: grenades, bullets for AK-47s, RPG-launchers and a bomb-making kit. All around were the trappings of normal life. “It looks like an apartment, but it’s actually a military base,” said Maayan.
The IDF soldiers in armoured personnel carriers, tanks and troop carriers are the only signs of life in an area now largely devoid of civilians. It is giving the army a huge advantage, said Adoniram.
“It’s like before, we locked up the lion in a cage,” he said. “Now, they’ve freed him and told him to win.”
This story was viewed by Israeli censors as a condition of accompanying troops into Gaza. Nothing was changed as a result