INSIDE THE GAZA STRIP (AP) — An Israeli tank rolls across a sandy moonscape, surrounded by rubble. Damaged buildings are visible in every direction. Toppled trees lie along the Mediterranean shoreline.
The Israeli military escorted international journalists into the northern Gaza Strip on Wednesday, giving them a glimpse of the aftermath of 12 days of heavy fighting in the area.
Israel has been at war against Gaza’s Hamas rulers since the Islamic militant group carried out a bloody cross-border attack on Oct. 7, killing over 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping about 240 others. Israel responded with weeks of intense airstrikes before launching a ground operation on Oct. 27.
“It’s been a long two weeks of fighting,” said Lt. Col. Ido, whose last name was withheld under military guidelines. “We’ve lost some soldiers.”
The initial focus of the operation was northern Gaza, near the Israeli border, before troops moved in on Gaza City, which Israel says is the center of Hamas’ military operations.
The Palestinian Health Ministry says 10,500 people have been killed in the Hamas-run territory. Israel says several thousand Hamas militants are among the dead. It also says Hamas uses civilians in residential areas as human shields, and so is responsible for the high death toll. Hamas has denied this.
The drive into Gaza on Wednesday was in a windowless armored vehicle. A screen inside showed images of the shoreline, damaged buildings and downed trees. Israeli tanks and armored vehicles sat motionless as soldiers patrolled the area.
During the tour, the army said it had found ammunition and a weapons-making facility inside one building. Much of the lab had been removed, but the remnants of rockets, thousands of which have been launched at Israel during the fighting, could be seen.
One floor above the lab was what appeared to be a children’s bedroom. The bright pink room had multiple beds, a doll and a Palestinian flag.
During the less than two hours they spent inside Gaza on Wednesday, journalists could hear gunfire but did not witness any live fire. Israeli troops instructed the journalists not to move around too much.
The army ordered civilians to evacuate to the southern Gaza Strip ahead of the ground offensive. While about 70% of Gaza’s population is believed to have fled their homes, U.N. officials estimate that roughly 300,000 people have remained behind.
But in this corner of northern Gaza, Ido said the order appears to have worked.
“We have not seen any civilians here – only Hamas,” he said, adding that militants had been spotted operating aboveground and emerging from their underground tunnel system.
“We gave all the people that live here a good heads-up that we’re coming,” he added.