A Midnight Trip Into Northern Gaza Reveals Total Destruction

Steve Hendrix / The Washington Post
A Midnight Trip Into Northern Gaza Reveals Total Destruction A man finds his way along a debris-strewn street at night following Israeli airstrikes in Gaza. (photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP)

To enter Gaza now is to arrive in hell.

On Saturday night, I crossed through the broken barrier between Israel and Gaza in the back of an Israeli military jeep, going fast without lights under a crescent moon. Before the breach, I was just able to make out the bullet-riddled cars by the roadside, some of the hundreds of civilian vehicles attacked by Hamas fighters who poured through this same fence on Oct. 7.

They mark the gateway to war.

Soon after we crossed into Gaza — racing over debris-covered roads — the first destroyed buildings appeared. Some were skeletal silhouettes against the stars, windowless and blackened, others mere pancaked stacks of concrete.

Further in, the ruins were more tightly packed. These were neighborhoods just weeks ago. Almost no structure was untouched.

Explosions sounded regularly. A fire burned on a nearby ridge. Every few miles, the sour stench of decaying bodies rose with the dust. Thousands of people are still believed to be entombed in the rubble.

Before the war, even during previous wars, donkey carts and Toyotas shouldered past each other in Gaza City’s chaotic intersections. The poorest fishermen powered their boats with cooking oil and sold their catch from blankets on the sidewalk. There was a mall with flashy sneaker stores and a recently opened cat cafe.

It was an enclave of poverty and power shortages that also bore a fierce pride of place. Northern Gaza — a vital center of Palestinian culture and identity — has become a smoking, reeking ruin.

Hundreds of thousands have fled to the south, leaving a silence broken only by the pop of machine-gun fire and the heavy thrum of Israeli tanks. More than 11,000 people have been killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, but the official number has been frozen for 10 days. Counting the dead is no longer possible, officials say. Communication blackouts make it increasingly difficult to reach the living.

I entered Gaza with a small group of journalists, escorted by the Israel Defense Forces. Our ultimate destination was al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest health-care facility.

Israel is eager to show what it describes as proof that the hospital was doubling as a Hamas military base, particularly a recently discovered tunnel shaft at the edge of the compound — though the evidence remains inconclusive. On this trip, reporters were permitted only a 60-second glimpse into a steeply pitched shaft, which Israeli commanders say is too perilous to enter.

Getting there would take hours — in jeeps first, and then an armored personnel carrier — in the company of heavily armed soldiers.

To gain access to Gaza, which is blockaded by Israel and Egypt, The Washington Post agreed not to disclose locations or details of certain military operations and equipment or to photograph soldiers’ faces. We were with the military for the entire six hours inside the enclave and were not permitted to seek out locals to interview, though there were no Gazans to be seen.

Israeli officials did not review The Post’s reporting before publication.

No Hamas fighters tried to stop our convoy across Gaza. Israel’s occupation of this part of the enclave seems firm, its forces everywhere. “In some areas, we have gained complete control,” said a lieutenant colonel, the deputy commander of the 7th Armored Brigade. “In denser areas it is more difficult.”

Like others in this piece, he spoke on the condition of anonymity in line with IDF rules.

I’ve made many trips to Gaza during my four years as The Post’s bureau chief for Israel and the Palestinian territories. Entering the Strip has always been difficult. I last came in September, navigating the gantlet of Israeli, Hamas and Palestinian Authority checkpoints to reach this parallel universe of deprivation and isolation.

It was just weeks before the Hamas attack, when the horrors of the past month and a half were still beyond imagining, even for those deeply steeped in this long and brutal conflict. But there were clues.

During that 10-day stay, my Gazan colleague Hazem Balousha and I were told that the summer of relative calm in Gaza — as violence spiked in the occupied West Bank — was beginning to fray. “It has been quiet, but it is beginning to boil,” Basem Naim, head of Hamas’s Political and International Relations Department, told us. “There is a lot of pressure under the water.”

We noticed an unusual amount of automatic weapons fire coming from a Hamas training area north of Gaza City, not far from where Balousha has a small fruit orchard. In a Sept. 21 story that now seems chillingly prescient, we reported that Hamas was said to be drilling its fighters on rocket launches, kidnapping soldiers and “storming settlements.”

It was one of the last international press dispatches from Gaza before Oct. 7, when Hamas militants stormed southern Israel — killing some 1,200 people, many of them civilians, and taking more than 230 hostages, including children and the elderly.

Gaza’s summer of peace — and Israel’s sense of security — has given way to unprecedented destruction on both sides of the barrier.

On this return visit, as the jeeps sped through the blackness, it was impossible not to think of the captives still being held somewhere in this unrecognizable warscape. Or perhaps beneath it.

“In this area, we think there is a Gaza beneath Gaza,” said the lieutenant colonel, who has been fighting in Gaza since Israeli ground troops entered in late October.

He was referring to the network of tunnels that Israeli and U.S. intelligence officials said lace the limestone beneath these neighborhoods, a labyrinth described as essential to Hamas’s guerrilla tactics.

“The terrorist will come out of one building to fight, and then disappear and come out of another building,” he said. “The same terrorist.”

The colonel had led some of the forces that cut straight across Gaza to the Mediterranean shore in the first days of the ground invasion. Saturday’s jeep ride ended on that beach. Not far away was the Roots Hotel, now largely destroyed, which had been our frequent base on visits here.

I had never been to Gaza without Balousha by my side. Fortunately, he and his young family — who were displaced five times in the first weeks of bombing and spent a night sleeping on the sidewalk near al-Shifa — managed to cross into Egypt. He continues to report from Amman, Jordan.

We transferred to a hulking personnel carrier for the final passage to al-Shifa, its massive ramp closing with an ear-popping pressurized hiss. There were no windows, but the monitors presented a ghostly white survey of crumbled buildings as we crept down streets stripped of pavement.

The machine rolled into and out of a crater as its cameras swiveled back and forth in search of threats. Disembarking at al-Shifa, we saw some of the only lighted buildings of our journey. A window glowed in the main structure and even more glowed in the emergency wing.

We entered about a hundred yards from those buildings, through a blasted wall in a hospital supply area, never seeing any of the hundreds of patients and caregivers still in the wards.

For weeks, the hospital has been collapsing, slowly at first and then with catastrophic speed, as the dead and injured overwhelmed the wards and staff ran out of water, medicine and fuel. Doctors operated on dirty floors without anesthesia and bodies were buried in a mass grave in the hospital courtyard.

A U.N. team, led by the World Health Organization, described the facility as “a death zone” after a brief tour on Saturday. “Signs of gunfire and shelling were evident,” the WHO said in a statement.

Medical staff reported heavy fighting in the hours after Israeli troops first stormed al-Shifa early Wednesday. The IDF told The Post that its forces have “not fired a shot” inside the compound and have provided the hospital with food, water and medical supplies.

Israel brought journalists on this risky trip because officials are adamant to prove the case they’ve been pressing for weeks: That Hamas uses hospitals as shields for military operations, even as thousands of wounded and displaced civilians rely on them for treatment and shelter.

Medical workers and the militant group have denied the accusations. Many facilities, besieged and surrounded, have already been forced to shut down or evacuate.

On Oct. 27, IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari said that al-Shifa concealed a vast Hamas subterranean headquarters, accessed through secret entrances to underground tunnels. He showed an animated video of what allegedly lay below. It was the “beating heart” of Hamas operations, another official said. Before the raid, U.S. officials declassified intelligence that they said supported Israel’s conclusions about al-Shifa.

On Saturday, Hagari said the uncovered shaft was clear evidence of Hamas infrastructure, but he also seemed to play down its significance. “I talked about Shifa Hospital, it’s on record,” he said. “I said ‘It’s not the command and control [center], like [top Hamas leader] Yahya Sinwar is sitting down there with [his top deputy] Marwan Issa.’ It’s for seniors, for brigade commanders.”

Forbidden from using flashlights in an area where soldiers had battled Hamas just hours before, we felt our way over rubble and tangled cables. We held red safety lights up to interview a masked special forces soldier who described breaching the wall of a storage area in the hospital complex, searching for Hamas fighters, then finding a car packed with weapons nearby.

Israel says its forces found the tunnel shaft when they detonated the explosives in the car and a military bulldozer involved in the action revealed the opening.

Gunshots sounded nearby as we moved toward the opening. The CNN cameraman was permitted to turn on a white light for about a minute to film, revealing how precariously we were crowded around the sloped, debris-littered shaft.

Earlier, before we entered Gaza, Hagari showed the group a video that troops had recently made by lowering a remote camera into the shaft. At the bottom, past a spiral metal stairway, a long horizontal tunnel is shown, ending at a heavy door.

Hagari said that the passage was likely to be booby-trapped and that engineers were looking for ways to investigate safely — to protect Israeli troops and possibly hostages, two of whom were recently discovered dead in nearby houses, he said.

Israel says the shaft is a portal to the wider Hamas tunnel network, a claim The Post cannot independently confirm. Pressure is mounting on the IDF to make a more conclusive case, to justify the humanitarian toll of its attacks in and around hospitals in Gaza — where the total death toll since the war began is more than 11,000 — and to claim a military victory as a deal to pause the fighting and free hostages hangs in the balance.

On the ride back in the personnel carrier, the Israeli colonel showed videos on his phone of Hamas fighters attaching magnetic explosives to an IDF tank, killing two soldiers. He described how militants launched rocket-propelled grenades from the lower and upper stories of apartment buildings, and how IDF troops had begun shooting rapidly, both high and low, when they entered traffic junctions.

Asked how those tactics comported with Israel’s pledge to protect civilians, the colonel cited several steps the IDF has taken, from warning residents to leave northern Gaza to halting actions each day along a major evacuation route.

Ultimately, he returned to Hamas’s brutality on Oct. 7. “This is a war zone,” he said. “We didn’t want to be here, but Hamas gave us no choice.”

The sky was even blacker when our jeep convoy finally crossed back into Israel. It had been a dark ride from one traumatized population to another.

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