ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 282

IDF troops head down toward an entrance of a newly uncovered tunnel in Gaza City's Shejaiya neighborhood, July 8, 2024. (David Horovitz / Times of Israel)
IDF troops head down toward an entrance of a newly uncovered tunnel in Gaza City's Shejaiya neighborhood, July 8, 2024. (David Horovitz / Times of Israel)
ToI in Gaza

Shejaiya is at least partly uninhabitable, but troops here say Hamas will return if it can

It’s walking distance from Kibbutz Nahal Oz to this Gaza neighborhood. That proximity proved deadly on October 7. Soldiers are now operating ‘in fifth gear’ to try to prevent a recurrence

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

IDF troops head down toward an entrance of a newly uncovered tunnel in Gaza City's Shejaiya neighborhood, July 8, 2024. (David Horovitz / Times of Israel)

This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

SHEJAIYA, Gaza Strip — We clamber into the back of an IDF Humvee, and set off for Gaza from next to the fields of Kibbutz Nahal Oz. There’s a soldier with a machine gun seated up front, but this is a vehicle whose sides are open to the elements; presumably, the IDF does not anticipate that we will be in any danger.

Assaf, the officer responsible for us, adds further reassurance: “We’ll hear lots more of those thudding noises,” he says. “It’s the Air Force hitting terror targets. It might sound close, but it’ll be at least 50 meters away. And 50 meters is a long way off when you’re in Gaza.”

Bumping along the dirt road, dust rising everywhere around us, we cross into the Strip through one of the many gaps in what proved to be the catastrophically irrelevant border fence on October 7. (The barrier’s highly sophisticated sensors were intended to detect the approach of invading terrorists, but its flimsy construction was not designed to stop them. For that, you needed actual troops.)

Almost immediately, we find ourselves entering what, in this area at least, is a wasteland. First, we cross open land scarred with the twisted metal remains of buildings, unidentifiable machines and vehicles, in what we are told was farmland and an industrial area, but also the site of two “Hamas facilities” and a training center. And then we enter what were residential areas, marked by disconnected slabs of concrete and rubble, where multistory buildings stood nine months ago.

We’re in Shejaiya, a northern Gaza neighborhood immediately adjacent to Nahal Oz — the IDF base, where Hamas-led terrorists killed some 60 soldiers; and the kibbutz, which Hamas occupied for 12 hours, murdering a dozen residents; it also took hostages from both places.

In the four hours I spent with other journalists on an IDF-overseen visit here on Monday, we saw no sign of non-IDF human life. But there are some noncombatants around, we were told, and there are certainly Hamas and other gunmen — emerging above ground in areas not far from where we were, and, potentially, in the vast underground tunnel networks.

The remains of buildings in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood, July 8, 2024. (David Horovitz / Times of Israel)

**

We make two main stops on our trip — the first for a briefing by Lt. Col. Ron Sayag, the commander of the 7th Armored Brigade’s 75th Battalion, in an area surrounded by tanks and other IDF vehicles from which we can still see some of the Nahal Oz buildings perhaps two kilometers away.

A father of three who lives in the Jezreel Valley, Sayag spent the first two months of the war up north, and has been in Gaza ever since. He last got home a month ago. He sends little video clips to his family but was pleasantly surprised that his son, the youngest of the three, still recognized him last time he was there.

Sayag takes us partway up a little incline and points to an area — between us and the border — where he says a 1.5-kilometer section of tunnel was blown up just a few hours earlier. He calls it “the closing of a circle,” since, 10 years ago this month, during an earlier round of conflict known as Operation Protective Edge, Hamas terrorists emerged from this tunnel, inside Israel, and killed five soldiers at an army position south of Nahal Oz. We can’t go any closer, he cautions, just in case…

Shouldn’t Israel have strategically tackled Hamas back then, I ask him pointlessly. Sayag is plenty diplomatic enough not to answer.

Asked by another of the reporters whether he has a message for the politicians, Sayag offers: “You do your job faithfully, and we’ll do ours.”

He’s pushed again, on whether it’s frustrating to be back in Shejaiya; wasn’t the IDF supposed to have taken operational control here months ago? (The IDF ended high-intensity conflict in this area in December, and announced that the Hamas battalion here had been dismantled. It began more targeted operations in April, and launched its current campaign here about 10 days ago.)

Here, Sayag feels comfortable explaining: “We’re doing things this time that were facilitated by the first, [high-intensity] operation.” In those earlier months, the IDF was fighting an organized Hamas army, he indicates. “Now, we’re focusing more on the infrastructure,” notably including destroying tunnels.

Lt. Col. Ron Sayag, the commander of the 7th Armored Brigade’s 75th Battalion, in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood, July 8, 2024. (David Horovitz / Times of Israel)

Operating constantly “in fifth gear,” he says, “we are changing the reality, we hope, for decades.”

Like every soldier we speak to, Sayag says he and his troops simply have no time to worry about internal divisions at home over the direction of the war and potential hostage deals. “Here, there’s unity,” he says. “We’re busy working. You might have three seconds to kill a terrorist. You must be focused.”

He says he and his troops have found “astonishing” quantities of weapons in some of the homes in the area. And they are necessarily wary of anybody they encounter. “But if they’re not attacking us, we treat them with respect. We hand them over to whoever should be responsible for them.

“In one case,” he says, “49 people came out of a single home. What were they doing there…?” He doesn’t complete the thought.

Sayag, soft-spoken, patient and likable, says he sees October 7 as “a turning point in Israeli identity.” He realized the scale, he says, “when I saw the white Hamas pickup trucks on the streets of Sderot.”

Armed terrorists in Sderot, southern Israel, having infiltrated from Gaza, on the morning of October 7, 2023 (X screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“Israel must be able to exercise its sovereignty to the very edge of its borders,” he says, thinking not only of the Gaza envelope communities where he and his troops are part of the effort to restore security but also of the north, where tens of thousands of residents have been displaced for nine months, many living in hotels. “People need to go home,” he says. “The north would be a different enemy,” he says of Hezbollah, “but we will know how to deal with it.”

“It’s a War of Independence,” says Sayag: “That last line in Hatkivah [the national anthem]: “To be a free people in our land.”

‘Israel must be able to exercise its sovereignty to the very edge of its borders,’ says Sayag. ‘It’s a War of Independence: To be a free people in our land’

Sayag is adamant that the IDF is doing everything in its power to save the hostages, and takes pride that he and his troops were involved in the extraction and return to Israel of the bodies of three hostages from Jabaliya in northern Gaza; “I only wish we had been able to rescue them alive,” he says. “We saw how important Operation Arnon — when four hostages were rescued alive from central Gaza last month — “was for the nation.”

Israeli hostages pictured after their rescue from Hamas captivity in Gaza on June 8, 2024. From left: Shlomi Ziv (IDF); Andrey Kozlov and Almog Meir Jan (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90), and Noa Argamani (Courtesy)

Asked if more such operations are possible, he says: “People made high-risk decisions. The outcome could have been different. Wherever it’s possible, we’ll do it.”

We are speaking with Sayag just five days after one of his own soldiers was killed in the fighting here — Cpt. Elay Elisha Lugasi, 21 — and he mourns him as a man of great courage, who had been injured in earlier fighting and insisted on coming back.

Along with the government’s declared aims of destroying Hamas’s capacities and bringing back all the hostages, Sayag adds another imperative: “Making sure my soldiers get home safely.”

**

Our second stop is deeper in Shejaiya, in the heart of what we are told was a neighborhood of multistory buildings. You’d never know it. While the shells of residential buildings are not far away, there’s nothing remotely habitable in this immediate vicinity. Even the roads are gone, torn up for fear of buried explosive devices.

Soldiers are clustered around a slope of dark-brown soil descending perhaps 10 meters into the earth. At the bottom, a tunnel is visible — or rather a small section of a tunnel has been cut away to reveal openings on either side.

“Two days ago, you’d have just seen flat earth,” Lt. Aleph, who can be identified only by his Hebrew first initial, tells us. And before that, before the bombardment in the earlier months of war, “there were houses where we are standing. And shafts going down into the tunnel,” he says, from the residential buildings, the mosques and schools along its route. “Hard to believe that the families above didn’t know about it,” he says in answer to a question.

Lt. Col. Gidon Eliastam, the deputy commander of the Paratroopers Brigade, standing above an entrance of a newly uncovered tunnel in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood, July 8, 2024. (David Horovitz / Times of Israel)

Lt. Col. Gidon Eliastam, the deputy commander of the Paratroopers Brigade who has also been accompanying the journalists on the trip, elaborates that the IDF has hit this tunnel several times in the past, but this part has only just been found and uncovered. “We’ve cleared the area. Now we’ll complete its demolition.”

The tunnel did not cross into Israel, says Eliastam, but seven IDF soldiers were killed in a Hamas attack about 150 meters from where we are now, also during Operation Protective Edge 10 years ago this month, and the body of one of them, Oron Shaul, was seized and is still being held. The terror group, he says, “used this tunnel to move forces.”

An entrance of a newly uncovered tunnel in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood, July 8, 2024. (David Horovitz / Times of Israel)

“We’re working fast, clearing the ground of the infrastructure of Hamas,” Eliastam had told us earlier. “We’ll keep going until the mission is completed. And we’ll be here for as long as is necessary to return the hostages and restore security. As I speak to you right now, there are operations. [Indeed so.] We’re ensuring the enemy can’t act again.”

Eliastam, a father of four from Kibbutz Ginegar in the north, readily acknowledges that the area is not free of threats. “We haven’t killed them all. They return, and whenever they return, we’ll handle it,” he says. “The enemy is moving around. The enemy does not surprise us, but we don’t underestimate them. The enemy prepared for years. We’re learning all the time.”

The destruction caused by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, October 20, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Eliastam hails “the amazing people” of nearby Kibbutz Nahal Oz. He says a very few of them are starting to come home but, more broadly, “they need to feel secure in order to be able to return,” and he can’t offer a timetable. “It will take a while,” he says.

And if there is to be a halt for a deal to secure the return of hostages, he says, the IDF will “need to return for as long as there’s terror.”

Palestinians move towards the Nahal Oz border crossing with Israel, east of Gaza City, on October 7, 2023. (Mahmud Hams / AFP)

**

As we are leaving the area of the tunnel entrance, climbing back into the Humvee to head back to Israel, one of the soldiers breaks diplomatic discipline and calls out to us, “Don’t stop it!” Presumably, he was expressing concern that the war would end in circumstances he would consider to be premature.

Some of the more senior officers we’d spoken to conveyed, carefully and diplomatically, a related concern that Hamas will return, recruit and rearm whenever and wherever it is given breathing space.

File – The torched command center of the Nahal Oz IDF base, overrun by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023, during a visit by relatives of slain lookout soldiers on December 19, 2023. (Courtesy/Eyal Eshel)

Four hours in Gaza, in ultra-safe circumstances, offered only the most limited insight into the war, but it was more than enough time to recognize that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declared goal of “complete victory,” in the natural interpretation of the phrase, is no imminent “step away.”

And more than enough time, too, to internalize the resilience and courage of the troops in Gaza, nine months into a war against an amoral terrorist-army, amid an at least partially complicit populace, where death lurks around every corner, in every doorway, and beneath every footfall.

**

We begin that astonishingly short journey home along the dirt roads, past tunnels found and yet to be found, toward the pointless border fence and the fields of Nahal Oz. The dust rises to envelop us again. But we quickly come to a halt. There’s some chatter on Assaf’s radio. Black smoke is rising above a building. We hear the rattle of gunfire, perhaps 50 meters away.

“Our gunfire,” Assaf assures us. “Some confrontation with a terrorist,” he says.

Fifty meters is a long way off when you’re in Gaza.

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