BEIT HANOUN, Gaza — This narrow strip of land that used to be called “the Gaza Strip,” already one of the more densely populated places on Earth, is growing dramatically smaller. The Israeli military, relentlessly and methodically, is driving people out of the 3-kilometer (1.8 mile) buffer zone it says it needs to protect against Hamas rockets and tunnels. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the buffer zone eats up about 44 percent of Gaza’s territory.
What that means on the ground is scenes of extraordinary devastation in places like the Al Shajaya district approaching Gaza’s eastern frontier, and Beit Hanoun in the north. These were crowded neighborhoods less than three weeks ago. Now they have been literally depopulated, the residents joining more than 160,000 internally displaced people in refuges and makeshift shelters. Apartment blocks are fields of rubble, and as I move through this hostile landscape the phrase that keeps ringing in my head is “scorched earth.”
It’s not like Israel didn’t plan this. It told tens of thousands of Palestinians to flee so its air force, artillery and tanks could create this uninhabitable no-man’s land of half-standing, burned-out buildings, broken concrete and twisted metal. During a brief humanitarian ceasefire some Gazans were able to come back to get their first glimpse of the destruction this war has brought to their communities, and to sift through their demolished homes to gather clothes or other scattered bits of their past lives. But many were not even able to do that.
When Rania Haels got within 60 feet of the debris that was once her family home in Al Shajaya on Saturday, a machine-gun on top of a nearby Israeli Merkava tank started firing. Probably these were warning shots pumped in her direction, but the 42-year-old mother of seven ran for her life. Now she stays with her family in an overcrowded parking garage in Gaza City and spends her days sitting in a public park full of refugees displaced by the Israeli push. Normally these would be festive times, the end of Ramadan is at hand and celebrations akin in spirit to Christmas festivities are beginning. But holidays have a way of intensifying tragedy. There is no place for Haels’ family to gather to give gifts and eat Palestinian sweets. There is, in fact, no place for them at all.
“We lost our homes and so now we live in the streets,” said Haels, holding a toddler in her arms who clings to her pastel-patterned hejab. “This war has destroyed me.” She says at least she knew where her home was. Some of her neighbors could not find their homes as they walked down streets made unrecognizable by the wreckage and horrifying by the presence of death.
The desert of demolition only becomes more vast as I get closer to the Israeli border.
Rashid al Delo and his 11 children were, like Haels, blocked by Israeli machine-gun fire when they tried to return to their home near the bombed-out Wafa Hospital in Al Shajaya. But despite the dire reality, al Delo, who used to work in Israel but has been unemployed these last 15 years, is determined to salvage his life.
“We will rebuild Gaza again and again, despite the force of the Israelis,” he said with confidence as he stood below the Gaza City apartment that belongs to his in-laws and houses, now, 30 members of their extended family.
In Beit Hanoun the systematic destruction mirrors Al Shajaya. I walk past old men and teenagers trying to lift cinderblocks and slabs of stucco with their bare hands, sometimes in search of a mattress and other times in search of a relative.
The desert of demolition only becomes more vast as I get closer to the Israeli border. Individually razed homes and stores give way to gray and white plains of obliterated walls with hills of contorted iron bars and broken-up slabs. Here the bodies are hidden under the new landscape and it will take more than a brief pause in fighting to unearth the gruesome extent of the town’s suffering.
“Scorched earth,” historically, means destroying land to deprive the encroaching enemy of its use. Israelis shy away from using the phrase to describe what they are doing because, in Israel, it brings to mind the strategy of the Nazi retreat from Russia at the end of the Second World War.
According to Hebrew University political scientist and longtime analyst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Yaron Ezrahi, with or without the phrase, the idea does have a certain logic. Ezrahi says there is a military and political calculation behind this devastation. Some in the Israeli government believe it will create enough Palestinian suffering so that Gazans will rise up against Hamas or force the leaders to come to terms with Israel when they come out of hiding.
But that is an assumption that greatly underestimates the resolve of Gazans to see an end to their seven years of Israeli blockade and rid themselves of the Israeli presence that controls the strip like guards positioned around a prison yard.
At the same time, said Ezrahi, the practice of systematically flattening neighborhoods is focused on saving the lives of Israeli soldiers, who might otherwise be more exposed to hit-and-run attacks.
“Israel is more sensitive than any other country in the West to the death of its soldiers,” said Ezrahi. “The death of [Palestinian] civilians is a moral crisis but is without political impact.”