When a group of international journalists arrived at the southern fringe of Gaza City early Friday morning, riding in the back of an Israeli Army jeep, we struggled to orientate ourselves amid the ruins, the wreckage and the darkness.
Since leaving Israel less than an hour earlier, our jeep had bumped and lurched through a landscape so disfigured by 42 days of airstrikes and nearly three weeks of ground warfare that it was hard at times to understand where we were. House after house was missing a wall or a roof, or both. Many had simply been flattened, their concrete floors lying atop each other like a pack of playing cards.
Trying to situate myself after reaching Gaza City, I asked a senior Israeli commander where we were in relation to a fishing port where I usually stayed during visits to Gaza before the war.
“Three hundred meters north,” the commander said.
I was stunned. Without realizing it, we had arrived at the Gazan neighborhood that I knew best.
Across roughly a dozen visits over the past three years, I had often jogged up and down this stretch of the Mediterranean shoreline, along the coastal road, past a fish market, a mosque, a cluster of apartment blocks and several beach clubs and cafes.
Now, it was barely recognizable. I could not find the fish market. The apartment blocks, I now realized, had been wrecked by shelling or strikes. The road had vanished, churned into a sandy, rutted track by the hundreds of Israeli tanks and armored vehicles that have fanned out across the territory since Israel invaded in late October.
An Israeli soldier near a stone and concrete shaft on the grounds of the Al-Shifa hospital. It was unclear where the shaft led or how deep it went, and Israeli forces had not ventured within.
The main constant was the sea.
To Palestinians and many international observers, such widespread damage to residential and commercial areas illustrates the indiscriminate nature of Israel’s strikes on Gaza, which have killed about 12,000 people and damaged more than 40,000 homes, according to Gazan officials.
The commanders escorting us called it the unavoidable cost of fighting an urban battle against an enemy — Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that controlled all of Gaza until the Israeli invasion — that had embedded itself within civilian buildings and infrastructure.
“We were shot from every direction,” said Lt. Col. Tom Perets, the deputy commander of the brigade that now controls the neighborhood. “We had to respond,” he added.
Israel’s invasion was itself born from necessity, Colonel Perets said. Israel disbanded its settlements in Gaza in 2005, later enforcing a blockade on the territory after Hamas seized control of it in 2007.
He said the Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7, which Israeli officials say killed an estimated 1,200 people and saw about 240 abducted to Gaza, had left Israel no choice but to re-invade the territory.
Our journey had begun shortly after midnight on Friday morning at Be’eri, an Israeli village that suffered some of the worst brutality of the Hamas attack, and whose residents have since been displaced across the country. Bullet holes fired by Hamas fighters on Oct. 7 were still visible at the village entrance.
A group of five foreign journalists, including three from The New York Times, traveled with a long Israeli military convoy carrying supplies to troops at the front.
To secure places in the convoy, we were obliged to remain with Israeli troops for the duration of our four-hour visit, and agreed not to photograph either the inside of one of the vehicles in which we traveled or the faces of most soldiers. We also agreed to switch off the cellular connections on our phones, once in Gaza, to avoid giving away our locations.
The Times agreed to such conditions in order to catch a rare glimpse of life inside wartime Gaza. Reporting in the territory has otherwise become extremely difficult because Israel and Egypt have blocked independent access to the territory; Hamas restricts journalists in Gaza; and regular network outages are increasingly preventing communication with the outside world.
The convoy crossed into Gaza through a gap in the same fence that Hamas gunmen had penetrated to enter Israel over a month ago.
At a spot just before the border, groups of civilian well-wishers offered sandwiches and drinks to the convoy’s drivers, then cheered them as they continued on down a farm track toward the border.
Entering Gaza meant entering darkness.
Fuel has run out in most parts of the territory, after Israel shut off electricity and blocked the import of fuel, forcing Gaza’s power plant to shut down.
In village after village, the houses that remained intact had no lights shining from within.
The drivers switched off their headlights to avoid being seen by militants, who have targeted Israeli soldiers with rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank missiles.
That left only light from the stars, as well as the occasional flare fired into the sky by Israeli soldiers to help illuminate battlefields.
The only signs of roadside life were the silhouettes of Israeli infantrymen who guarded the route at strategic intervals.
We saw no Palestinians.
More than a million have fled their homes in the northern half of Gaza, emptying whole neighborhoods. The few left behind risk being disconnected from any kind of support network.
“Not everyone can evacuate — my mum is sick and cannot walk, I cannot leave her alone,” said Ahmed Khaled, 39, a civil servant who has stayed in the north and who spoke to my colleague by phone on Thursday.
“Ambulances don’t make it here,” Mr. Khaled said. “Sometimes it takes them two days to arrive and sometimes they just don’t arrive. If they are needed at nights, there’s no way they come.”
Arriving in Gaza City, we left the open-sided jeep for an armored personnel carrier — a sign that pockets of resistance to Israel remain there.
A few minutes later, we arrived at Gaza’s largest hospital — a sprawling campus, partly captured by Israel on Wednesday, that is now filled with the tents of people displaced by the fighting.
The hospital, Al-Shifa, has been a primary target of the Israeli invasion because Israel says it sits atop an underground military compound used by Hamas.
It was therefore the final destination of our journey: Israel is seeking to build international legitimacy for its invasion by proving to journalists that the hospital truly doubles as a military compound — a claim dismissed by Hamas and the hospital leadership.
We hurried into the complex through the bombed-out remains of a building on the outskirts of the site, escorted by Israeli special forces, picking our way through rubble. They said it was still too dangerous to pass through the main gate because of fighting nearby.
Inside, we found a squad of Israeli soldiers sleeping in a cafeteria-turned-makeshift-dormitory. A few dozen yards away, a few lights glimmered from the windows of the hospital itself — proof, the Israelis said, that the hospital continued to function despite their presence.
But we were not allowed to switch on our phones to call the hospital management, and the state of the hospital could not be confirmed. The World Health Organization