On the Ground in Incredible Shrinking Gaza

‘The overall policy behind this destruction is that if are no houses there, they can’t surprise us.’

AL SHUJAIYA, Gaza — A vast swathe of twisted rebar and broken slabs of cinderblock lines Gaza’s eastern border almost a year after Israel’s devastating war in the besieged coastal strip. The smell of death may have gone from the fields of destruction where Palestinian civilians and fighters alike met their fate, but even now it looks like the war could have ended yesterday. Here and there residents in war-wrecked buildings, tents, metal one-room portable homes and tin shacks are all that’s left of the Palestinian communities on the edges of Beit Hanoun, Al Shujaiya, Khuzaa, and Rafah.

During the 50 days of fire and bloodshed last year, Israel threatened to create a 3-kilometer-wide no-man’s land in Gaza, which the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned at the time would effectively shrink the strip by 44 percent. Although in the end no official buffer zone was created, there’s no question that one of the most densely populated places on Earth has been made denser by the rubble from a war that achieved little for either side. The eight-year blockade of Gaza continues. Hamas remains in charge there.

In its long-anticipated report on the cost of the war to Palestinian and Israeli civilians, released on Monday, the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) describes 44 percent of Gaza being made into either a no-go area or subject to evacuation warnings that uprooted 500,000 people during the war. That is 28 percent of Gaza’s population. The UN estimates 2,251 Palestinians were killed during the war, including 1,462 Palestinian civilians. Of those civilians, 299 were women and 551 were children. On the Israeli side the UN cites six civilian and 67 military killed.

The Commission was barred access to Gaza by Israel, which refused to co-operate and accused the UNHRC of bias. Egypt also denied it access through Gaza’s southeastern Rafah border crossing. Under the government of former coup leader turned President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Arab world’s most populated country has become a strong Israeli ally.

However, through interviews it conducted with victims and experts as well as aerial maps and reports by NGOs on the ground, the UNHCR investigated the leveling of Al Shujaiya, Khuzaa, and Rafah during Israel’s ground invasion. It’s a line of destruction that remains unchanged to this day.

“The blockade and the military operation [in Gaza] have led to a protection crisis and chronic, widespread and systematic violations of human rights, first and foremost the rights to life and to security, but also to health, housing, education and many others,” the report asserts.

The Commission says that there is a lack of information to suggest any perceived Israeli military advantage in these areas warranted this kind of destruction and mass civilian casualties.

“These attacks could be disproportionate, and therefore amount to a war crime,” the report contends.

It lists Israel as using 5,000 tons of munitions, 14,500 tank shells and roughly 35,000 artillery shells. The document cites a 533 percent increase in highly explosive artillery shells from the 2008-2009 Gaza war.

“We have heard—especially from those in the central Gaza region—that part of the strategic goal for the day after the war was that they wanted to destroy houses to enable Israel’s scouts to be able to see into Gaza,” says Avihai Stollar. The earnest 32-year-old former first sergeant in the army’s Kfir Brigade is the director of research for the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, which documents and publishes the testimonies of soldiers’ experiences serving in Israel’s wars and occupation. The group has recently released a book of testimonies from soldiers who fought all over Gaza, presenting a comprehensive inside look at how the Israeli military waged its assault.

Additionally, Stollar says the demolishing of the border areas served several other military goals. He depicts an army primarily focused on killing off Palestinian fighters before Israeli soldiers are moved in and the use, not just of warnings but, of shelling, to encourage civilians to flee the areas. The report also states that shelling was used to encourage civilians to escape.

“The overall policy behind this destruction is that if are no houses there, they can’t surprise us,” he says.

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An active-duty Israeli soldier who served in a reconnaissance unit in Khuzaa describes a policy of bringing down buildings that blocked the ability to see into the border town. He declined to be identified because he is not allowed to speak to media.

None of the demolished apartments and homes that line the central-eastern Gaza neighborhood of Al Shujaiya have been rebuilt. Many are little more than rocky craters. During the war this was the fiercest scene of combat. Palestinian guerrilla fighters, led by Hamas’s Al Qassem brigades, launched an intense hit-and-run campaign to bog down the Israeli advance. Thousands of civilians fled as shells crashed around them while others were trapped by the fighting.

For the few that have returned, severe Israeli restriction on cement imports has meant these residents have spent the last 10 months living in charity-provided tents and makeshift homes built with slabs of broken cinderblock and stucco. Israel has claimed its blocking of concrete imports is justified because they were used to reinforce tunnels used by fighters and for smuggling goods into Gaza and launching surprise attacks against the Israeli forces during the offensive.

So, young men here pull the rusted rebar from the concrete that provided the foundation for their living rooms with little hope of being able to rebuild. They separate the metal and put broken slabs of their apartments on trucks and donkey carts to be hauled away and ground into dust.

“There were three buildings here, each three to four floors,” says 36-year-old Um Hossam Harrar about the destroyed homes of her extended family. The mother of eight sits on the dusty ground in front of a canvas tent provided by the Charity of Oman, erected where her home used to be. She stares past the wreckage into the distant farmers’ fields of Gaza and Israel, talking about how her family is now scattered throughout the territory. The only reason she came back is because her family can’t afford rent in a housing market squeezed by demand from those that the war made homeless.

On June 14 Israel released a report commending its army for fighting a “moral war,” blaming Hamas for the destruction and absolving itself of any wrongdoing in its mass bombardment. “Who destroyed these villages, who killed the civilians here,” Um Harrar asks rhetorically. “The Israelis did this,” she says waving her arm toward the buildings reduced to piles of rubble all around her.

Northern Gaza’s Beit Hanoun district is filled with similar stories of wholesale displacement in neighborhoods facing the Israeli border. “Many of my neighbors had nothing to come back to,” says 65-year-old Ahmed Daoud. He now lives with his extended family of 30 in a network of tin shacks next to the partially collapsed, concrete shell of their three-floor apartment building. Most of his former neighbors now live in UN schools and temporary shelters, he says.

The Norwegian Refugee Council, an NGO that is providing support for those made homeless in Gaza, estimates there are still 89,000 internally displaced people. “IDPs are difficult to reach because some reside in makeshift shelters, others with host families,” says spokesperson Elizebeth Koek.

According to the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNRWA) spokesperson Christopher Gunness, only 524 of those who lost their homes in the war are still in UN schools that were turned into emergency shelters. UNRWA intends to have the remaining shelters closed in the next week so it can prepare them to be classrooms again for the upcoming school year.

“I was renting my home in al-Shujaiya and it was destroyed during the war,” says 43-year-old Aziz Alaf, whose family has been living in a Gaza City UNRWA school since the war. Gunness says that all those being moved out of the shelters have been given money for rent, but according to Alaf it’s not enough to secure an apartment. She describes how, like many working-class residents of eastern al-Shujaiya, she paid 500 shekels in rent before the war. Now that the neighborhood is gone, she can’t find anything for less than 1,200 shekels and landlords expect a six-month advance on rent. “We will live in the streets,” she says, standing in front of a school where people’s laundry hangs above the entrance to classrooms.

The constant insecurity and uncertainty that Israel’s indiscriminate bombardment brought to the residents of eastern Gaza hasn’t really ended. Instead, the lives of those who fled and were left with nothing to return to are still trapped in the shadow of the war.