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How war destroyed Gaza’s neighbourhoods – visual investigation

Satellite imagery and open-source evidence lay bare the destruction to civilian infrastructure by Israel in its war on Hamas.


A Guardian investigation has detailed the mass destruction of buildings and land in three neighbourhoods in Gaza.


Using satellite imagery and open-source evidence, the investigation found damage to more than 250 residential buildings, 17 schools and universities, 16 mosques, three hospitals, three cemeteries and 150 agricultural greenhouses.


Entire buildings have been levelled, fields flattened and places of worship wiped off the map in the course of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, launched after the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October.

The destruction has not only forced 1.9 million people to leave their homes but also made it impossible for many to return. This has led some experts to describe what is happening in Gaza as “domicide”, defined as the widespread, deliberate destruction of the home to make it uninhabitable, preventing the return of displaced people. The concept is not recognised in law.


The Israeli military says that its fight is against Hamas and not Gaza, that its bombardment is proportional to the threat posed by Hamas and that it is making every effort to warn citizens of imminent attacks.


An IDF spokesperson told the Guardian: “Hamas operates nearby, underneath, and within densely populated areas as a matter of routine operational practice. As part of the IDF’s operations, it [has] been carrying out strikes on military targets, as well as locating and destroying infrastructure when imperatively required to achieve the goals of the war.”


Beit Hanoun

Beit Hanoun, a city in north-east Gaza surrounded by agricultural land, was home to about 50,000 people in 2017. The Israel Defense Forces announced full control of the area in December. The area was depopulated and several neighbourhoods reduced to rubble.


Swathes of agricultural land have been erased, visible in satellite imagery from Planet Labs taken on 30 November. Most of the agricultural greenhouses have been destroyed and new paths from armoured vehicles are now strewn across the growing area. An analysis by UNOSAT in December found that 39% of agricultural land in north Gaza had been damaged.


An entire residential neighbourhood of more than 150 buildings has been flattened. Also destroyed were schools, including one run by the UN that was blown up by Israeli forces in mid-December.

The Beit Hanoun hospital has been severely damaged, and the Balsam hospital destroyed. Under international humanitarian law, schools and hospitals are protected civilian objects, and the principles of distinction and proportionality apply when targeting them.

A view of Burj al-Nada and Burj al-Awda buildings destroyed due to Israeli attacks on the fourth day of the humanitarian pause between Israel and Hamas in Beit Hanoun, Gaza on November 27, 2023. {Photograph: Fadi Alwhidi/Anadolu via Getty Images}

The Guardian analysis found a cemetery bulldozed and mosques damaged or destroyed. Among them is the Umm al-Nasr mosque, parts of which date back to 1239, which is damaged.


Ammar Azzouz, a research fellow at the University of Oxford and author of a book on domicide, whose own city Homs in Syria was severely damaged in 2012, said: “Domicide’s impact unfolds with time. Its pain spreads not only across those who lost their homes in Gaza, but also for those whose homes remain intact as their wider infrastructure has been targeted.”


By zooming into Beit Hanoun further, the scale of the damage becomes clear to see. Hovering over particular areas of damage changes the view to a satellite image from 20 May 2023. Many of the fields have evidence of damage from Israeli military activity, but some visible differences in colour can be attributed to seasonal variations of crop growth.


Al-Zahra and al-Mughraqa


Al-Zahra, one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods located in central Gaza, was home to tower blocks, universities and about 5,000 people before the war.


To the north is a large wastewater treatment plant surrounded by armoured vehicle tracks over flattened farmland. New paths and fortifications carved out by Israeli forces have emerged over an older network of roads no longer recognisable.


To the east, in the town of al-Mughraqa, a large crater is all that's left of one building, while a nearby school’s buildings have visible damage.


Cratered roads surround the Turkish-Palestinian Friendship hospital. The hospital reported blast damage to two rooms and its oxygen and water supply.


At the heart of al-Zahra sit three universities, mostly damaged and surrounded by craters.

Of them, Israa University was blown up by Israeli forces this month, after being used as a military base. After footage of the explosion prompted the Biden administration to ask the IDF for clarification, they announced a probe into its circumstances. This occurred after the satellite image was taken.



Screengrabs from a video circulating on social media show the moment Israa University in al Zahra was partially demolished by the Israeli army

The al-Zahra tower blocks, reportedly home to more than 3,000 people, were flattened by Israeli bombing.


“Gaza’s destruction is far worse in terms of the scale, ferocity and impact when compared to Ukraine, Syria or other conflicts,” said Balakrishnan Rajagopal, the UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing. Rajagopal called for domicide to be recognised as a crime under international law at the UN general assembly in 2022.


Between 2013 and 2016, UN data shows that 40% of Aleppo’s structures were damaged during the Syrian civil war. As of 5 January, in less than three months of conflict, Rajagopal said that 60% of all structures have been damaged or destroyed in Gaza.


Martin Coward, professor of international politics at Queen Mary University of London, said: “It is somewhat different [to Syria] – the IDF has been targeting the subsurface infrastructure that Hamas has set up in Gaza and to do that it has to go through the built environment of the surface. They have attempted to be precise in that targeting – although there has been a lot of collateral damage on civilian buildings.”


Detailed satellite imagery from Planet, dated 31 December, reveals some of this damage. Hovering over particular areas of damage changes the view to satellite images from 20 and 30 May 2023.


Khan Younis


Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, sits at the edge of northern Gaza’s former evacuation line. Initially considered a safe zone, the city took in fleeing and injured civilians when the war’s focus was in the north, but has been relentlessly bombarded since December after the IDF expanded its campaign.

The Guardian’s analysis found multiple mosques destroyed beyond recognition, alongside destroyed greenhouses and residential blocks.


Another sports ground has been destroyed, alongside an entire residential area with residential buildings and agricultural fields. Large craters and rubble remain where more than 100 greenhouses once stood.


Pharmacies, supermarkets, schools and a kindergarten show signs of damage. Cratered roads surround al-Bandar al-Sharqi hospital.


Khan Younis refugee camp, home to 41,000 people in 2017, was established after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war to accommodate Palestinian refugees expelled from their homes. The camp, which hosts several UN buildings including a UNRWA school, took several hits and showed signs of damage.


Palestinians cook among the houses destroyed in Israeli strikes, at Khan Younis refugee camp, on 29 November 2023. {Reuters/Mohammed Salem}

Azzouz said: "One of the most pressing questions to emerge now … how to give people a sense of home and belonging after enduring loss? How to remember the killed? And how to imagine a future where [...] Gaza is rebuilt again?"


Panning through the satellite imagery below, taken on 5 January 2024, reveals how wide swathes of northern Khan Younis have been destroyed. Hovering over particular areas of damage changes the view to a satellite image from 16 May 2023.


Rajagopal, Azzouz and Coward all said the evidence in the Guardian investigation was in line with their understanding of events in Gaza as a form of domicide.


“The utter annihilation of Beit Hanoun and the destruction of al-Zahra and Khan Younis, are evidence that Israeli use of force has made life impossible by making them uninhabitable,” said Rajagopal, the UN rapporteur. “All that matters to live a dignified and secure life is destroyed and that is not legal or legitimate under any sense of a law-based world.”


Coward, the Queen Mary University professor, said: “The destruction of homes plays a key role in both the displacement – communities cannot return if they have no home to return to – and the destruction of communities, as homes are destroyed and families displaced so all the things that make a community cohesive are destroyed and they are scattered to many different places.”


Azzouz said: “The Guardian investigation shows how Israel weaponises architecture in Gaza, destroying Palestinians’ cultural heritage sites and their everyday urban fabric.”



Displaced Palestinians, who fled their houses due to Israeli strikes, shelter in a tent camp in Khan Younis Photograph: {Mohammed Salem/Reuters}

Corey Scher and Jamon Van Den Hoek estimate that between 142,900 and 176,900 buildings had been damaged as of 17 January, which raises questions on how to rehabilitate Gaza when the war ends.


Coward added: “Looking at the images of al-Zahra, Khan Yunis and Beit Hanoun there is widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure such as schools, universities and shops. This destruction not only kills and displaces civilians, it destroys the sense that these places are home to a particular way of life. If you can’t shop or learn, you can’t form a sense of belonging or call a place home.”


Methodology


Satellite imagery has been sourced from Planet Labs. Images prior to the 2023 conflict were taken in May 2023, while the damage evidence presented is from images taken on 30 November and 31 December 2023 and 5 January 2024. Satellite imagery from other dates was used for verification purposes. Some satellite imagery has also been sourced from Copernicus Sentinel.


The videos of the Beit Hanoun school and the Turkish-Palestinian friendship hospital were taken from social media footage that the Guardian has verified. The footage from the car in Beit Hanoun and the footage of the Khaled bin al-Walid mosque in Khan Younis were released by Reuters. The drone footage of the al-Zahra residential area was released by Getty. The footage of the street in Khan Younis was released by Associated Press.


Damaged areas have been verified against satellite imagery, user-generated multimedia footage, news reports or IDF updates.


The analysis by Corey Scher of the City University of New York and Jamon Van Den Hoek of Oregon State University only covers building damage, while the Guardian’s assessment also recorded agricultural damage.


To establish the existence and identity of particular areas or buildings, the Guardian used a variety of sources including UNOSAT damage analysis, social media, local news reports, company websites, Planet Labs, Open Street Maps, MapCarta, WikiMapia, Google Earth, Google Maps and satellites.pro.

An area was confirmed as damaged only if two or more reporters managed to verify it.


NOTE: For access to the interactive map please click on the original link to the article below.

 

(c) 2024, The Guardian



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