Middle East

When battles in Gaza stop, many fear it will remain uninhabitable

The Israeli army’s use of powerful explosives in tightly packed residential areas – which Israel describes as the unavoidable outcome of Hamas using civilian sites as cover for its operations – has killed over 14,000 Palestinians and led to staggering destruction. Hamas denies the claim and accuses Israel of recklessly bombing civilians.

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“When I left, I couldn’t tell which street or intersection I was passing,” said Mahmoud Jamal, a 31-year-old taxi driver who fled his northern hometown of Beit Hanoun this month. He described residential buildings resembling open-air parking garages.

Israel’s bombardment has become one of the most intense air campaigns since World War II, said Emily Tripp, director of Airwars, a London-based conflict monitor.

In the seven weeks since Hamas’ unprecedented October 7 attack, Israel unleashed more munitions than the United States did in any given year of its bombing campaign against Islamic State – a barrage the UN describes as the deadliest urban campaign since World War II.

In Israel’s grainy thermal footage of air strikes targeting Hamas tunnels, fireballs obliterate everything in sight. Videos by Hamas’ military wing feature fighters with rocked-propelled grenades trekking through smoke-filled streets. Fortified bulldozers have cleared land for Israeli tanks.

“The north of Gaza has been turned into one big ghost town,” said Mkhaimer Abusada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City who fled to Egypt last week. “People have nothing to return to.”

About half of all buildings across northern Gaza have been damaged or destroyed, according to an analysis of Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellite data by Corey Scher of the CUNY Graduate Centre and Jamon Van Den Hoek of Oregon State University. With the UN estimating 1.7 million people are newly homeless, many wonder if Gaza will ever recover.

A satellite photo of Gaza City. Photo: Planet Labs PBC via AP

“You’ll end up having displaced people living in tents for a long time,” said Raphael Cohen, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a research group.

The war has knocked 27 of 35 hospitals across Gaza out of operation, according to the World Health Organization. The destruction of other critical infrastructure has consequences for years to come.

“Bakeries and grain mills have been destroyed, agriculture, water and sanitation facilities,” said Scott Paul, a senior humanitarian policy adviser for Oxfam America. “You need more than four walls and a ceiling for a place to be habitable, and in many cases people don’t even have that.”

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Across the entire enclave, over 41,000 homes – 45 per cent of Gaza’s total housing stock – are too destroyed to be lived in, according to the UN.

“All I left at home was dead bodies and rubble,” said Mohammed al-Hadad, a 28-year-old party planner who fled Shati refugee camp along Gaza City’s shoreline. Shati sustained nearly 14,000 incidents of war damage – varying from an air strike crater to a collapsed building – over just 0.5 sq km (0.2 square miles), the satellite data analysis shows.

Southern Gaza – where scarce food, water and fuel has spawned a humanitarian crisis – has been spared the heaviest firepower, according to the analysis.

An Israeli air strike on in Gaza this week. Photo: Reuters

But that’s changing. In the past two weeks, satellite data shows a spike in damage across the southern town of Khan Younis. Residents say the military has showered eastern parts of town with evacuation warnings.

Israel has urged those in southern Gaza to move again, toward a slice of territory called Muwasi along the coast. A four-day truce was due to begin on Friday to allow more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza and facilitate an exchange of Palestinian prisoners for Israeli hostages.

Displaced Palestinians said four days won’t be enough.

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“This is our nakba,” said 32-year-old journalist Tareq Hajjaj, referring to the mass displacement of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians during the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation – an exodus Palestinians call the “nakba” or “catastrophe”.

Although publicly Palestinians reject the idea of being transferred outside Gaza, some privately admit they cannot stay, even after the war ends.

“We will never return home,” said Hajjaj, who fled his home in Shijaiyah in eastern Gaza City. “Those who stay here will face the most horrific situation they could imagine.”

Palestinians flee to the southern Gaza Strip, on the outskirts of Gaza City. Photo: AP

The 2014 Israel-Gaza war levelled Shijaiyah, turning the neighbourhood into fields of inert grey rubble. The US$5 billion reconstruction effort there and across Gaza remains unfinished to this day.

“This time the scale of destruction is exponentially higher,” said Giulia Marini, international advocacy officer at Palestinian rights group Al Mezan. “It will take decades for Gaza to go back to where it was before.”

It remains unclear who will take responsibility for that task. At the recent security summit in Bahrain, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi vowed Arab states would not “come and clean the mess after Israel.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants the army to restore security, and American officials have pushed the seemingly unlikely scenario of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority taking over the strip.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, regarded by many Palestinians as weak, has dismissed that idea in the absence of Israeli efforts toward a two-state solution.

Despite the war’s horrors, Yasser Elsheshtawy, a professor of architecture at Columbia University, hopes reconstruction could offer an opportunity to turn Gaza’s ramshackle refugee camps and long deteriorating infrastructure into “something more habitable and equitable and humane”, including public parks and a revitalised seafront.

But Palestinians say it’s not only shattered infrastructure that requires rebuilding but a traumatised society.

“Gaza has become a very scary place,” Abusada said. “It will always be full of memories of death and destruction.”


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