July 19, 2024

Residents who returned to the northern Gaza town of Jabaliya on Friday had expected to find mass devastation but said they were still shocked by the level of ruin they saw after three weeks of an Israeli offensive on the dense, urban area.

“The destruction is indescribable,” said Mohammad Awais, who returned with his family to their home in Jabaliya on Friday. “Our minds aren’t able to comprehend what we’re seeing.”

He said he and his family walked along devastated roads for nearly an hour in the heat and saw that no vehicle could navigate streets blocked by piles of rubble from homes and shops that had been destroyed by the Israeli military.

As they walked, rescue workers passed, carrying the wounded and bodies of those killed on stretchers. Some bodies were found in the streets, others had been dug out and pulled from the rubble — already beginning to decompose, said Mr. Awais, a social media marketer.

“Even the ambulances can’t drive through them to transport the injured and martyrs,” he said of the streets in Jabaliya.

The Israeli military said on Friday that it had finished its offensive in eastern Jabaliya and withdrawn after recovering the bodies of seven hostages, killing hundreds of fighters and destroying several miles of an underground tunnel network.

Satellite imagery captured in late May by Planet Labs showed the scale of the destruction in one southern area of the town and the area near the market.

Some buildings had already been destroyed before the latest Israeli offensive in the area, according to imagery from April. But by late May, far more structures in those areas appeared flattened and almost all vegetation was razed.

Mr. Awais and his family are among the few residents who still have a place to return to. Their home was only partially damaged. On Friday, they began to clean out parts of collapsed walls, broken wood and glass and ruined furniture so that their home would be inhabitable again. But the family supermarket, which had to close in December as a result of Israel’s siege on Gaza, was entirely destroyed, he said.

“Rubble is everywhere,” he added.

On May 11, the Israeli military said it had renewed its offensive in Jabaliya because Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that led the Oct. 7 attack, was trying to rebuild its infrastructure and operations in the area. At the time, Hamas accused Israel of “escalating its aggression against civilians all across Gaza” and vowed to continue fighting.

Israel first invaded northern Gaza after weeks of carrying out an intense aerial assault on the enclave in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack. The military has launched numerous deadly attacks on Jabaliya. Having survived the assault during the early months of the war, many people in Jabaliya thought they were safe from another Israeli offensive.

A Palestinian man riding a donkey-pulled cart past a damaged school in Jabaliya, northern Gaza.Credit…Omar Al-Qattaa/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Resting in the rubble in Jabaliya on Friday after Israeli forces withdrew from the area.Credit…Mahmoud Issa/Reuters

“Residents returned with tears in their eyes,” said Hossam Shbat, a journalist in Gaza. “Everything that we see is just rubble and destruction and wreckage. And more massacres.”

He added, “Residents have returned to see what no one can imagine: the destruction of the businesses and infrastructure and the shelters that sheltered thousands of displaced people.”

Jabaliya is often referred to as a camp because it was established more than 70 years ago by Palestinian refugees who were expelled or forced to flee from their homes in present-day Israel during the creation of the state. They were never permitted to return to their homes, and Jabaliya grew into a community populated by the refugees and their descendants.

In a video Mr. Shbat recorded on Thursday, he shows the ruins of Jabaliya around him. Behind him, in the shell of one four-story building, fires still smoldered in the debris.

“We can’t describe it in words,” he said in an interview. “The occupying military intentionally destroyed all the essentials of life.”

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