By Anshel Pfeffer/Haaretz
Tel Aviv, November 15: The saga of the hospitals in the heart of Gaza City is still ongoing, though it seems to be nearing a resolution. Meanwhile, the plight of the patients and staff, and the possibility that some of the hostages and Hamas leaders may still be in Al-Shifa or another hospital – though they have probably moved elsewhere – has obscured what is now the main event elsewhere in the city and its outlying townships.
Only a tiny proportion of the Israel Defense Forces’ tanks and units currently operating in the northern sector of the Gaza Strip are encircling Al-Shifa. They may be getting all the attention of the media and decision-makers right now, but the dozens of battalion combat teams deployed by the IDF have pressing business elsewhere.
Sector by sector, they are going from house to house, searching and destroying tunnel shafts and weapons stores. They’re taking no risks, and as nearly all of the million-plus population who lived in the area just six weeks ago have now fled south (and of the small number remaining, most are concentrated in the center of Gaza City), this means that any building that is any way suspected of harboring weapons or tunnel entrances is bombed or bulldozed, or both.
We may be very near the point where there are more Israeli soldiers in Gaza City than Gazans, and the issue of trying to avoid more civilian casualties will no longer exist because all those who can will have left. Hamas’ powers to prevent civilians from leaving are rapidly eroding.
Wide swaths of the city and its surroundings have already been destroyed, and it’s only a matter of weeks before the largest Palestinian city is rendered totally uninhabitable.
Cities have been destroyed before, in the Middle East and across the world, in both ancient and recent history. But when this happens, it is a seismic event for nations. Yet somehow, despite all the eyes of the world being on Gaza, this has somehow been missed.
One important reason why we have yet to fully notice the depopulation and destruction of Gaza City is that Hamas doesn’t want its own constituency, the Palestinian people and the wider Arab world, to see what they have lost due to the folly of launching such a vicious attack on Israel. The confrontations it has manufactured around Al-Shifa and other hospitals are in part aimed at hiding this. But once the hospitals are evacuated and there will be no more concentrations of civilians for Hamas to use, what is left of Gaza City will be inescapable.
Israel is on the cusp of doing what it said it would: destroy Hamas’ military capabilities. And since, in the 16 years it has ruled over Gaza, Hamas spread its military infrastructure above and below ground throughout the civilian fabric of the city until they were inseparable, there was no other way but to destroy Gaza City.
If it wasn’t clear when the government set out its original war aims, it should have been clear on October 13, six days after the Hamas attack, when the IDF called for everyone living north of Wadi Gaza to move south. If and when Israel allows them to return, there will be nothing left to go back to, unless a massive international effort is made to rebuild the city.
The IDF now sits on top of a mound of ruins that was once Gaza City. The saga around Al-Shifa Hospital will soon be over and the last of the civilians still in the city will make their way south. The implications of what has happened will finally sink in.
What does Israel do with this ruined city? Will there be a plan at some point to allow its residents to return and rebuild, or will the far right continue to entertain its dream of replacing them with settlements? Will Israel seek to visit the same level of destruction on the other Gazan cities, or is this a one-off? Is this now the price tag for atrocities against Israelis?
What will it mean to the world when it sees what happened? Will the international community and public opinion continue to be split between those who accepted that Israel had no choice but to strike hard at Hamas following the atrocities of October 7 and those who will always see Israel in any scenario as an evil aggressor? Or will the destruction of Gaza City seem overly disproportionate also to those who are prepared to hear Israel’s case?
Will the Arab world take up Gaza’s cause belatedly and reverse its “normalization” efforts with Israel? Or will it be to the Arab nations just another of those cities destroyed in not-too-distant history, like Hama, Homs and Aleppo in Syria, and Fallujah and Mosul in Iraq – the price of doing business in the region? After all, the Arab League just invited Syrian President Bashar Assad, the butcher of Homs and Aleppo, son of the butcher of Hama, to its emergency summit on Gaza last week.
Most crucially, what will it mean to the Palestinians? Will it fuel more generations of hatred of Israel, or will it ultimately be Hamas that is blamed for forcing this response from Israel?
Naturally, some on both sides have called the uprooting of over 1 million Gazans a second Nakba – and with such evocative scenes, that comparison is inevitable. But at the same time, the reaction among many Palestinians has been much more nuanced. There is no third intifada breaking out in the West Bank, despite the settlers’ violent provocations. One of the biggest Palestinian communities, that of Israeli Palestinians, has not erupted in any way and is showing instead – at least according to surveys – high levels of solidarity with the rest of Israeli society. Is this a real change in how they engage with Israel and themselves, or will the anger erupt at some point?
This war is far from over, and none of these questions have answers for now. But in the same way October 7 changed everything, the destruction of Gaza City is another event that has irrevocably changed reality in ways we cannot yet predict.