Urban battle from past Gaza war offers glimpse of what an Israeli ground offensive might look like

JERUSALEM — A battle that killed dozens of civilians and more than a dozen Israeli soldiers nearly a decade ago offers a glimpse of the type of fighting that could lie ahead if Israeli forces roll into Gaza as expected to punish Hamas for its rampage across southern Israel last week.

It was July 19, 2014, during Israel’s third war against Hamas. The target was Shijaiyah, a densely populated neighborhood of Gaza City that the army said Hamas had transformed into a “terrorist fortress,” filled with tunnels, rocket launchers and booby traps.

The battle came on the third day of a ground offensive that had been preceded by a 10-day air campaign. Then, as now, Palestinian civilians had been told to leave the neighborhood. Then, as now, many stayed, either because Hamas told them to or because they had nowhere else to go.

As Israeli forces pushed into Shijaiyah, a jumble of squat concrete buildings and narrow alleys, militants unleashed a withering barrage of automatic gunfire, anti-tank missiles and rocket-propelled grenades, the army said at the time.

An armored personnel carrier broke down. When two soldiers got out to fix it, a militant fired an anti-tank missile at the vehicle, blowing it up and killing all seven soldiers inside. In the ensuing chaos, Hamas fighters managed to drag away the remains of one of the soldiers and are still holding them.

In the panicked aftermath, soldiers were ordered to climb into their armored vehicles as artillery battalions fired 600 shells and aircraft struck from overhead. The next day, Israeli warplanes dropped 100 one-ton bombs on the area, Israeli media reported later.

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“The gate of hell has opened, and shrapnel came through the windows,” a Palestinian resident told the AP at the time.

In 2014, “there was a feeling of craziness in how much fire was used,” an Israeli soldier told Breaking the Silence, a group of veterans who are critical of Israel’s policies and collect anonymous testimony from soldiers.

Fifty-five civilians were killed during the two-day battle, including 19 children and 14 women, a U.N. report found, as well as an unknown number of militants. Thirteen Israeli soldiers were killed.

Amir Avivi, a retired Israeli general who was serving alongside top commanders during the 2014 battle, said this time would be “completely different,” because the artillery and airstrikes will come first.

“It will be a massive maneuver with a lot of air and artillery — a very, very strong entrance. We’re going to try to minimize as much as possible our troops’ casualties, and for this, we need a lot of cover.” He said less firepower would be needed if it is used at the start and not when soldiers are in distress.

The tremendous firepower may have stemmed the army’s losses, but it took a heavy toll on civilians and flattened much of the neighborhood. Some 670 buildings were destroyed and nearly 1,200 were moderately to severely damaged, the U.N. report said. Investigators counted 270 craters.

“It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” then-Secretary of State John Kerry said sarcastically about the battle, in a moment caught on a hot mic.

Israel has ordered an unprecedented evacuation of nearly half of Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinians from the northern part of the besieged territory to the south. Avivi, the retired general, said that is intended to spare them. But not everyone is able or willing to flee.

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“When the artillery will start, those who haven’t evacuated yet will evacuate,” he said.

The U.N. report found “strong indications” that the Shijaiyah operation involved indiscriminate fire that “may amount to a war crime.” The International Criminal Court is investigating possible war crimes committed by both sides during the 2014 war.

Israel, which has long accused U.N. bodies of being biased against it, refused to cooperate with either probe.

The war continued for more than a month after Shijaiyah, through similarly destructive battles. It ended with a shaky truce and Hamas still firmly in control despite the deaths of 2,251 Palestinians — mostly civilians — and widespread destruction. On the Israeli side, 74 people were killed, including six civilians.

In 2021 the two sides fought another devastating war, though there was no ground invasion.

And then on Oct. 7, a still unbowed Hamas stormed out of Gaza and rampaged through southern Israel, killing hundreds and dragging some 200 hostages back into the narrow, coastal territory.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was also in power in 2014, has vowed to destroy Hamas. The group’s leaders say they are prepared for all scenarios.

Israel has promised a “very broad” air, ground and naval offensive in the near future. It has massed tanks and tens of thousands of troops along the Gaza border.

If they move in, Shijaiyah will be among their first targets.

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