We have not ourselves tried to count each destroyed house that we have seen, but the figures quoted by the UN do not seem to be excessive compared to what we have observed on the ground. Entire neighbourhoods that I visited only a few months ago have now been reduced to rubble.
Homes listed as “partially destroyed” were struck or damaged by shells fired by artillery or from tanks or by missiles fired from aircraft: they typically have several massive jagged holes in the walls and/or roofs and many have one or two rooms that were burnt out, usually as a result of white phosphorus shelling.
Other homes have been completely destroyed as a result of bombardment by F-16 aircraft or were blown up with explosive charges by Israeli forces. In some cases, Israeli forces also used D9 armoured bulldozers to flatten houses.
Today, Wednesday, at a house in Atatra where 20 people formerly lived we found one of the anti-tank mines that was used by Israeli soldiers to blow up the house on 4 January; it was damaged but had failed to explode. The family told us that they had found another such mine, wholly unexploded, which had been removed by the local police.
At first, when we found the remains of one of these anti-tank mines close by some demolished houses, we questioned whether they had been laid by Palestinian armed groups to impede advancing Israeli troops. However, it rapidly became clear that this was not the case and that the mines had been laid by Israeli troops as we found remnants bearing Hebrew writing and serial numbers.
Though designed for use against tanks, these mines are easily adapted to other purposes through the addition of an explosive charge and fuse. Israeli soldiers have previously confirmed to us that these anti-tank mines have long been used to destroy Palestinian houses, most often in the West Bank but also in Gaza.
All over Gaza, we find families camping out on the shattered wrecks of their homes, as though they cannot bear to tear themselves away from their past – or because they simply have nowhere else to go. The few who can afford to do so have moved to rented apartments, but these are not easy to find in Gaza, which has long had a housing shortage.
Most, though, cannot afford to pay rent even if they could find an apartment for rent available. Many are now living in shelters made of cardboard and drapes on or beside the rubble of their homes.
“You work for 25 years to build a home,” said one man in Khuza’a, “and then it is destroyed in a few minutes.”
The entire neighbourhood where his home stood was flattened less than a week before the ceasefire came into force. Local residents told us that Israeli forces had used eight large armoured bulldozers, protected by tanks, to destroy this area of well-built homes.
Today, some foreign journalists asked us look at a house, a mosque which had been completely destroyed by the Israeli army and a school which had been severely damaged. They had been told by the Israeli army that these buildings had been destroyed or damaged because they had been used as weapons stores.
They wanted our military expert to identify any evidence of this. The semi-basement of the house, which had been home to the elderly parents (the four sons of the family and their wives and children had lived on the ground and upper floors) and the basement of the mosque, which had apparently been used as a youth club, were still accessible and we could sift through the rubble.
At both locations, it was evident there had been no secondary conflagration. As well, there was no indication that anything had been removed from the rubble. The only explosive that we found was one of the Israeli anti-tank mines, which bore Hebrew marking and was damaged but unexploded. It appeared to have been used as part of an effort to blow up the house.
As for the school, it had sustained severe damage in one place, seemingly by an F-16 strike, and lesser damage, which appeared to have been caused by shelling, in several other places on the upper floors. Here too, we saw no evidence that the school had contained anything other than what would be expected to be found in a school – desks, blackboards and the like.
To date the Israeli army has not provided any evidence to substantiate the claim that these locations contained weapons or explosives; we will follow up these cases later to see if they do so in future.
In many areas where large numbers or houses were destroyed, residents had fled their homes when the Israeli tanks approached and shelled the area, fearing for their lives. After the ceasefire, when people returned, some found that their homes had been reduced to a pile of rubble or had been damaged, to a greater or lesser extent, mostly by tank and artillery shelling.
In some areas that we visited, we were told that Palestinian armed groups had fired rockets from nearby open spaces – but it was hard to see how this could warrant the destruction of entire residential neighbourhoods. At al-Mughraqa, to cite just one example, a quarter of the town was razed to the ground by Israeli forces one day before the ceasefire.
“What should we do?” said one man. “If we rebuild they may destroy it again? And there is no cement in Gaza, no building materials to be had.”
There is no doubt that the principles of distinction and proportionality, cornerstones of international humanitarian law, were severely violated during the three-week Israeli offensive in Gaza.