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Gaza Strip: The wall of a school had shattered into rubble. The minaret of a mosque was tilting to one side. The roof of a beachfront villa had vanished, leaving a maroon sofa exposed to the elements.
Along the northern coastline of Gaza on Saturday afternoon (local time), these were the signs of battle between Hamas, the Palestinian militia that controls the Gaza Strip, and the Israeli army, which had for eight days tried to oust Hamas from power.
Israeli military personnel holding a position within sight of the Gaza coast.Credit: Ronen Bergman/The New York Times
Israeli military leaders brought a small group of foreign journalists into northern Gaza on Saturday for four hours to witness the extent of the advance. A reporter for The New York Times was among them.
Thousands of troops began their incursion down the coastline on October 27, one part of a three-pronged invasive force that aims to vanquish Hamas, which led a brazen raid on Israel last month that killed roughly 1400 people.
Eight days later, the Israeli army has fought its way several miles to the south, reaching the outskirts of Gaza City, Hamas’ stronghold, and establishing control over the northern stretch of Gaza’s coastal road.
Less than a month ago, the northern coastline of Gaza was a quiet seafront, flecked here and there with beach resorts and hotels. On Saturday, it was a giant Israeli military camp.
Israel says all damaged locations along Gaza’s coastline had at one time served as refuge for Hamas militants.Credit: Ronen Bergman/The New York Times
Long lines of infantry marched south along the road, blowing plumes of dust into the air. In the sand dunes east of the road, long rows of tanks and armoured vehicles dominated the landscape, stretching toward the horizon.
Many buildings were wrecked, their walls sprayed with bullet holes. Some were most likely hit from the air during an Israeli bombing campaign that has killed more than 9000 people in Gaza, according to Gaza’s health authority, which is controlled by Hamas.
Palestinian residents had fled south, abandoning the seafront to the Israeli soldiers and a few stray dogs and cats.
An Israeli officer accompanying the journalists, Lieutenant Colonel Iddo Ben-Anat, projected an image of quiet confidence.
Hamas had been routed here, the colonel said, forced out from its bases in the mosque with the tilting minaret and the school with the shattered wall.
“It’s like catching a mouse,” Ben-Anat said of the enemy. “You have to find him. You know he’s there. You don’t know where he is, but you know when you catch him, he’s done.”
Nearby, groups of soldiers gathered around portable camping stoves, boiling sweet corn and carrots, chatting and joking. Several sported well-groomed moustaches, an incongruous nod to Movember, an annual global fundraising campaign in which men grow moustaches throughout November.
All the political divisions in Israel of the past year — in which thousands of military reservists had threatened to refuse to serve in protest of the Israeli government — had vanished, the colonel said. Many of his men were reservists.
“United, together,” Ben-Anat said.
But drowning out these expressions of bravado were the sounds of an unfinished and undecided war.
Even as some soldiers cooked and rested, others had their guns drawn, scanning the horizon for assailants. At any moment, the colonel said, Hamas fighters might emerge from hidden shafts that lead to a vast underground tunnel network, hundreds of miles long, and ambush Israeli troops.
Gunfire rattled constantly, and munitions flew regularly overhead.
Palestinians strike the concrete while looking for survivors under the rubble of a destroyed house following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City.Credit: AP
Shortly after the journalists entered Gaza through a hole in the wall lining its perimeter, a mortar shell landed close to the armoured vehicle that carried them south.
A few minutes later, a roadside bomb exploded as the vehicle passed by, creating a brief fireball and sending sand toward the sky.
Another barrage of mortar shells landed near the journalists after they got closer to the front line.
To reach the front, journalists drove in a convoy of five tanks and two armoured vehicles. A reporter for the Times travelled in an armoured vehicle known as an Eitan. It had no windows: To see his surroundings, the driver looked at a digital screen that showed a live video of the road ahead.
Palestinian journalists have not had such protection; dozens have been killed in airstrikes since the start of the war, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
To truly rout Hamas, Israel will need to capture all of Gaza, the colonel said.
Bloodier battles await Israelis in Gaza City, where Hamas fighters are entrenched in subterranean fortifications and are thought to be planning many more ambushes.
Analysts say that such fighting could cause catastrophic civilian losses — an outcome Israel says it is trying to avoid.
‘I am afraid to go out one night and meet a tank.’
“We do our best to destroy Hamas only, without harming the civilians,” Ben-Anat said. “We’ll think 10 times before we do something.”
But for civilians in Gaza City, who have witnessed one of the most intense bombing campaigns of the 21st century, the Israeli army’s approach is terrifying.
Saher Abu Adgham, 37, a Palestinian graphic designer, had been searching the streets of Gaza City for firewood to use to boil some rice. As dusk approached, he bedded down at home in case the Israeli army advanced at nightfall.
“I am afraid to go out one night and meet a tank,” Abu Adgham said in a phone interview.
With mobile networks often out of service, other residents of Gaza City were trying to assess the Israeli advance by listening to the sound of the gunfire.
“We don’t have internet to listen to the news and know what is happening — but we can hear it,” said Majdi Ahmed, 32, a taxi driver taking shelter in a hospital in the city.
“Now I can hear the shooting,” Ahmed said in a voice message. “Seems they are now fighting.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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