Invaders turn abandoned school into command base

The Times UK, August 4, 2014

Bel Trew

A neat hole blown through the wall of the Beit Hanoun secondary school for boys in Gaza was the only outward sign that Israeli troops had paid a visit.

As residents took advantage of a brief ceasefire yesterday to inspect the ruins of their neighbourhood, they discovered that in the past four weeks the school had been turned into a command centre for the Israeli army. Dozens of grenade shells and bullet casings were scattered amid brick dust and rubbish under desks pushed up against a window. Spent ammunition littering the classroom floors told of the ferocity of the battles waged from there.

Heaps of rotting Israeli bread, tinned food, sun lotion and piles of toothbrushes showed that soldiers of the Nahal infantry brigade had spent some time there. The troops had scrawled the name of their battalion, 931 Nahal, on the walls with pastel-coloured chalk.

One soldier had drawn a self-portrait in a boy’s exercise book under the words “Tsuk Eita 2014” – the Hebrew name for Operation Protective Edge, the -offensive Israel launched against Gaza in early July.

The shells found scattered in classrooms were for launchers that could fire 300 grenades per minute. The casings were from a machinegun that can cut through a house. The remains of what looked like a 155mm Howitzer artillery shell was left in the playground. The destruction from this heavy weaponry had ripped through the town, home to more than 30,000 Palestinians, more than 90 per cent of whom are refugees.

Behind the school was a no-man’s land where dust clouds billowed as Israeli tanks drove along the border a few hundred metres away.

Dozens have died in the border town that has witnessed some of the bloodiest close-quarter combats of the four-week military war. Most of the area has been obliterated.

The outskirts of Beit Hanoun have been inaccessible for weeks after it was swallowed up by a military buffer zone. Yesterday was the first time that residents had seen their homes since Israeli tanks rolled in on July 18.

A mural of Mickey Mouse painted in a child’s bedroom lay exposed to the elements. “This is all I have left,” said a man holding six chickens. 

Ambulances used the lull to look for the dead. There were eight bodies under the rubble too far east to reach in the previous ceasefire, Mohamed Hamid, a Red Crescent driver, said. “We are waiting for the green light to go there,” he said. 

The Palestinians said the intensity of the assault on the tiny 40km-long territory (25 miles) would worsen the political rift between it and Israel in the future. Nafez Gesser said his tractor, his only source of income, was ruined in the strikes. “We are back to ground -zero,” he said.