Monday, June 24

A Glimpse Inside a Devastated Gaza

For a few fleeting moments, the two-story house on the edge of Bureij, a ruined town in central Gaza, still felt like a Palestinian home.

Bottles of nail polish, perfume and hair gel stood untouched on a shelf. A collection of fridge magnets decorated the frame of a mirror. Through a window, one could see laundry, hanging from a neighbor’s washing line, swaying in the gentle breeze.

But despite the trappings of home, the house now has a new function — as a makeshift Israeli military barracks.

Since Israeli ground forces recently fought their way into this part of central Gaza, a unit from the military’s 188th Brigade has taken over the building, using it as a dormitory, storeroom and lookout point.

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

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

The people of Gaza were nowhere in sight.

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

Since Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people, according to officials, Israel has pummeled Gaza from the air and captured large parts of it on the ground, leading to widespread death and destruction.

About 23,000 Gazans have been killed in the Israeli campaign, according to Gazan officials — approximately 1 percent of the population. More than 80 percent of the enclave’s residents have been displaced, according to the United Nations. Some 60 percent of the buildings have been damaged, the U.N. has also said.

As we traveled through central Gaza on Monday, every village bore the marks of war. Some buildings had collapsed entirely, their floors stacked on top of the other like piles of books. Tower blocks, missing whole sections, stood precariously. The house in Bureij was missing an outer wall. A grove of trees next door had been leveled, the plants ripped from their roots and the land churned into mud.

Ultimately, all the buildings near the house would most likely be destroyed, a senior commander said, once the army exploded a Hamas tunnel network that he said lay beneath them.

“They destroyed everything — the buildings, the infrastructure, the farmlands,” Hazem al-Madhoun, 35, an aid worker who was sheltering nearby with his family on Monday morning, said of the Israeli military.

“We lived a very bad experience,” Mr. al-Madhoun said in a phone interview conducted after his family fled to a less dangerous part of Gaza on Monday evening.

The soldiers leading the tour said that the damage had predominantly been the fault of Hamas, both because the Oct. 7 raid forced Israel’s hand and because the group’s fighters had embedded in residential areas, using civilians as human shields.

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

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

“I try to avoid hitting those towers, but we have no choice,” General Veruv said. “The damage is not the goal. It is a side effect.”

The troops showed off a stockpile of rockets, each roughly three yards long, contained in a shed close to a major civilian highway, a telecommunications depot and a clothing warehouse. A Hamas logo had been stuck to the wall.

The soldiers also took reporters to a civilian steelworks, in which, they said, Hamas had made munitions. Both locations contained large shafts that the soldiers said connected to a vast tunnel network, hundreds of miles long. Much of the damage visible above ground, the soldiers said, was in aid of destroying what could not immediately be seen beneath the surface — a warren of passageways from which, they said, Hamas conducts it military operations, stores weapons and holds some of the surviving 240 hostages captured on Oct. 7.

A third tunnel opening was found in a one-story farmhouse. The military did not allow journalists to enter the shafts 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, like the one where the 188th Brigade was quartering, because it was too dangerous to enter through the front door, General Veruv said. Hamas, he added, often booby-trapped entrances. A grove of trees beside the village may have been filled with land mines, prompting the army to level it, one of his subordinates said.

“I don’t come for revenge,” General Veruv said. “I come because it’s necessary.”

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

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

Reporting in Gaza has otherwise been profoundly challenging: Scores of Palestinian journalists have been killed by Israeli strikes; Hamas has placed restrictions on the news media; and telecommunications networks have frequently failed, sometimes because of direct Israeli intervention, according to U.S. officials.

Bureij is a place maimed by war — roads ground into dust, plumes of smoke rising from rubble, living rooms naked to the wind. Occasionally, there were moments of fleeting beauty: a bright yellow parakeet, perhaps escaped from an abandoned home, darting past an Israeli tank; a break in the gunfire punctuated by birdsong.

All morning, fighting could be heard throughout the area, most of it machine-gun fire and shelling, as Israeli troops advancing deeper into Gaza clashed with Hamas fighters.

Mr. al-Madhoun, the aid worker, said members of his extended family had almost been caught in the crossfire as 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 the bullets,” Mr. al-Madhoun said.

The death toll in Gaza has prompted accusations that Israel is committing genocide, an allegation 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 military is doing its best to preserve civilian life in a battle against an enemy untrammeled by such concerns.

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

Among the military’s rank-and-file, though, there were signs of a less benign attitude. Self-shot videos have emerged of Israeli soldiers destroying or rifling through belongings found in Gazan homes, or writing disrespectful graffiti on the walls.

In the house in Bureij, one soldier had written a message in Hebrew that appeared to mock another soldier for failing to kill anyone.

“Sapir doesn’t have an X,” the graffiti read.

In military slang, an X refers to the notch that some soldiers inscribe on their rifle after shooting someone dead.

Outside, a lone white-haired goat wandered through the rutted landscape. Its Gazan owners had fled, leaving it to sniff at the tracks of an Israeli tank.

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