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In Real Life: A Hidden War

From Gaza to the West Bank, this “In Real Life” documentary shows how a war in response to terror has reignited a conflict over claiming and clearing land.
Posted at 7:07 PM, Apr 28, 2024

Editor's Note: This project is in partnership with Bellingcat. Read Bellingcat’s full companion article here.

A war following the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7 continues to take its toll on civilians. Israel’s stated aim in this conflict was to remove Hamas and bring hostages home. But in this documentary for “In Real Life,” on-the-ground reporting and open-source intelligence show how the conflict has expanded, growing into a campaign of clearing and claiming land — from Gaza to the West Bank.

Hamas fighters first breached the border with Israel at the Erez border crossing. The crossing was a closed military zone from Oct. 7, 2023 until it reopened April 5 to allow more aid into Gaza. When the “In Real Life” crew filmed there in March, a group of Israeli settlers were trying to push their way through the crossing, aiming to take over areas of Gaza that had been evacuated by Palestinians.

A few yards from the scuffles at the crossing, you can still see damage from when Erez was stormed by Hamas fighters. A facility here was the security terminal for people coming in and out of Gaza. The signs of the attack cover this terminal.

Hamas fighters filmed celebratory videos of the destruction, and around 1,200 Israelis were killed in the violence that would ensue — hundreds were taken hostage including women and children as young as 9 months old.

The response from Israel was immediate — a full-scale military bombardment of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated areas on Earth.

A ball of fire and smoke rise from an explosion on a Palestinian apartment.

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In the six months following the attack, the Gaza Health Ministry reports more than 32,000 Palestinians were killed, the majority women and children. Gaza now faces one of the worst humanitarian crises the world has ever seen, but it’s happening away from the eyes of international mediathere’s no access except on a very limited basis with Israeli military minders. However, we can see some of what's happening through satellite imagery analyzed by Scripps News and our partners at Bellingcat.

The destruction is widespread — satellite imagery shows mass demolitions in an area where Israel aims to establish a 1-kilometer-wide “buffer zone” over international objections, and along a corridor that bisects the strip from Israel’s border to the Mediterranean.

Human rights observers have described the devastation as an Israeli military campaign of “domicide”— that is, the widespread or systematic destruction of homes and civilian infrastructure.

In areas around the buffer zone, we can use satellite imagery from Planet Labs to see that hundreds of homes have been flattened. That includes in cities like Khuzaa and Abasan al-Kabira in Gaza’s south.

In the so-called “Netzarim Corridor,” hundreds of homes and thousands of acres of agricultural land have been completely cleared by the military.

Going even beyond satellite imagery, researchers at two American universities have used something called “satellite radar” — using radar waves from Earth’s orbit to map out destruction in the Gaza Strip in detail.

Nurse Rajaa Musleh

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As of March 9, their analysis estimates that 55% of all buildings in Gaza have likely been damaged or destroyed.

Estimates from the United Nations say over 650,000 Palestinians — around 30% of Gaza’s pre-war population — will have no home to return to.

In the last few months, more than a dozen Palestinians have reached out directly to Scripps News to ask if we could check satellite imagery to see if their own homes are still standing.

While Gaza is still closed off to international media, there is another place where the response to Oct. 7 is forcing Palestinians from their homes. About 60 miles away, in the other area of Palestinian control — the West Bank — an old conflict over land has entered a new phase in the aftermath of the Hamas attacks.

Ten-year-old Amro Al-Najjar was shot in the head as Israeli forces raided his village.

His dad, Mohammed, says he was driving home with Amro and his little brother when they rounded a corner and found themselves face-to-face with an IDF unit that opened fire on their car.

Since the start of the war in Gaza, Israel’s military has sharply increased its operations in the West Bank. The U.N. says more than 100 Palestinian children have been killed by the IDF here since Oct. 7.

The number of green Hamas flags in the crowd is a mark of how that violence has galvanized solidarity over what’s happening in Gaza. We were told there wouldn’t have been as many of these flags before the war.

In a statement to Scripps News, the IDF said the incident with Amro was under review but that its soldiers were doing “counterterrorism activity” in the area and fired live rounds in response to some stone-throwing.

Amro’s dad says it was murder and wanted to show us the bullet hole in his windshield.

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The Najjar family home is sandwiched between two Israeli settlements. They’ve turned their house into a fortress because, they say, of a dual threat from settlers and the IDF.

It’s not just IDF operations that are on the rise. Since Oct. 7, Israeli settler violence has sharply increased too.

The spike in settler attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank has drawn so much international attention that the U.S. recently imposed sanctions on illegal settler “outposts” it says are used as bases for carrying out attacks.

When we managed to get access to another outpost, we saw how the line between the IDF and settlers has become blurred since Oct. 7.

Zvi Lev established an outpost with his brother a few years ago. The outpost, and a neighboring settlement, are home to both armed settlers and Israeli soldiers.

Israel activated hundreds of thousands of reservists after Oct. 7, including many from settlements in the West Bank. In a statement to Scripps News, the IDF wouldn’t confirm the numbers, but said they were “a vital part of the IDF whether in mandatory service or reserve.”

Outposts are a way of expanding the reach of Israeli settlements in the West Bank — both are illegal under international law, but outposts are illegal under Israeli law too.

Lev’s outpost has gradually expanded its farming operation into surrounding areas where Palestinians were using the land. His outpost isn’t the only one that’s grown in the area.

Satellite imagery, analyzed by Scripps News and Bellingcat, shows the expansion of multiple other outposts. One outpost is to the north, one to the south, and one a little over a mile to the east.

The outpost to the north, Maoz Ester, has a Facebook group where they’ve highlighted new buildings and solicited donations in February for “security equipment.”

The outpost to the east, A’ira Shahar,was demolished by Israel’s government in August, but it appears to have only been a temporary deterrent. Recent satellite imagery shows that building has resumed at the site.

Working with Bellingcat, we were able to direct satellites to other areas where we found multiple other instances of ongoing settlement expansion — and an analysis from Bellingcat’s Global Authentication Project of additional satellite imagery found dozens of other sites throughout the West Bank where there are new roads, buildings, or cleared land near settlements or outposts.

Israeli soldiers in an underground tunnel found underneath Shifa Hospital in Gaza City

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As settlements continue to grow, data from the United Nations shows that attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank skyrocketed after Oct. 7. A UN report in March said that out of more than 400 fatalities from West Bank violence since Oct. 7, including four IDF soldiers, more than 96% of those killed were Palestinians. Many settler attacks against Palestinians involve the destruction of Palestinian homes — something that has been documented by groups like B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group.

“It's very clear that the Israeli right, the Israeli settler movement, has been abusing the public response in Israel to the horrors of October 7th as a golden opportunity to pursue objectives that they've been pursuing long ago,” said Sarit Michaeli, International Advocacy Lead for B’tSelem. "The main one is taking over as much Palestinian land as possible, and removing and forcibly transferring as many Palestinians from that land.”

One incident documented by B'tSelem shows the Israeli Civil Administration and IDF soldiers conducting a demolition in December leaving a family of eight, including four kids, homeless. Months later, the site is just a pile of rubble.

In these smaller, rural Palestinian communities in the West Bank, there’s little recourse against the increased pressure, but in more densely populated areas, a new front line is opening up.

Our team visited the Tulkarem refugee camp, near the Palestinian city of Nablus.

Unlike in Gaza, Israel has no declared conflict here — but Tulkarem looks and feels like a war zone, and we wanted to meet the fighters on the front line.

Known as the Tulkarem Brigade, this group has emerged over the past couple of years as an alternative to the Palestinian Authority, which no longer has much control over these areas.

The Tulkarem Brigade is composed of several dozen fighters with differing affiliations to groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States. They consider themselves the first line of Palestinian resistance to Israel's occupation of the West Bank. Israel says they’ve targeted both the IDF and Israeli civilians living in settlements.

Since Oct. 7, however, they’ve mostly been engaged in fending off increased IDF operations, losing several fighters in the process. When we filmed with the fighters, they were on high alert, expecting another IDF raid on their neighborhood at any moment.

When our crew returned to Israel, a different kind of fight was brewing over who should lead the country through through this time of conflict.

Anti-government protests like this have become almost a weekly occurrence in Tel Aviv, with thousands on the streets calling for new elections after six months of war with no end in sight.

Palestinians look at the destruction by the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

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In polls published on the six-month milestone of the war, 71% of Israel’s public said they think Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should step down over his handling of the conflict. A majority also said the government isn’t doing enough to bring the hostages home, and we heard the same from the families of the hostages themselves at this demonstration outside Jerusalem.

Six of Gilad Korngold’s seven relatives held hostage by Hamas have been released, but his son Tal is still missing, and Korngold says the government’s approach isn’t working.

Other Israelis think the government isn’t being tough enough. Down at the border with Gaza, we found a group of protesters calling for aid to be completely restricted until all the hostages are freed.

As police tried to clear the area, tensions rose.

On the other side of the border fence — just a couple of miles away — lies Rafah, where about 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the fighting are in urgent need of food, medical supplies and shelter.

Shrouq Aila is a Palestinian filmmaker who agreed to send us updates on what was happening inside Gaza.

Aila’s signal was so unstable we mostly talked by sending voice messages. It took days for her video footage to send, and when it arrived the scenes were harrowing. Images showed the growing famine and lack of medical supplies, including basic anesthetic. We asked her to talk to families who’d been displaced about what they planned to do next.

Palestinians like Aila have been risking their lives to report on this conflict. The U.N. says more than 120 journalists and media workers have been killed in Gaza since the start of the war.

Aila has been running her husband’s production company by herself for nearly six months now.

Their family’s house was hit by an airstrike in the first two weeks of the war. Her husband Roshdi Sarraj was killed instantly, leaving her to raise their baby daughter alone.

Aila told us most families sheltering in Rafah had only left their homes on the assumption they’d be back. Some of the stories of what happened next were devastating.

Aila’s family’s house was in a neighborhood of Gaza City called Tal al Hawa. Based on satellite data analyzed by Scripps News, that neighborhood was hit at least 30 times in the first month of the war — causing civilian casualties and widespread damage.

Palestinians crowded together as they wait for food distribution in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip.

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These airstrikes were only the beginning of IDF’s offensive in Tal al Hawa. Once Israel’s ground forces reached that area, a different form of destruction came with it — IDF units systematically demolishing buildings and infrastructure, and sometimes posting videos of those demolitions to social media.

It wasn’t just Aila’s neighborhood. This was a pattern repeated across Gaza, with IDF personnel posting hundreds of these kinds of videos since the war started.

Working with Bellingcat, Scripps News was able to establish that many of the demolitions were done by a combat engineering unit called Battalion 8219, and we were able to track their movements across Gaza, from Aila’s neighborhood in the north to the town of Khuzaa, where a large number of buildings were destroyed near the Israeli border

In one video shared by an 8219 member, soldiers can be seen smoking a hookah on a rooftop before conducting a demolition of a large number of houses in Khuzaa. Another video, filmed from a similar vantage point, shows the soldiers walking toward the camera and putting on sunglasses as the buildings in the background are destroyed.

The soldier who shared these videos on Facebook described “cleaning” the Khuzaa homes within the “new line,” an apparent reference to the buffer zone. He says that a quarter of the homes in the town were destroyed by Battalion 8219.

We tracked down one of the soldiers from that unit. Yonatan Segal is a reservist who, like thousands of others, was activated on the day of the Hamas attacks.

Segal says he never posted any videos of the demolitions, but he knows soldiers who did and even showed us one on his phone.

Asked if revenge was one of the motivations behind the demolitions, he said, “Yes. But what is revenge? Revenge in terms of teaching them a lesson, so to speak, so that they would never do that again.”

We asked the IDF if posting videos like this could bring disciplinary action. In a statement to Scripps News, the IDF said cases where soldiers had deviated from what was expected would be arbitrated and command measures taken, but that such cases were unusual.

Regarding the demolitions, they said IDF units in Gaza were operating to dismantle Hamas’ military and administrative capabilities, and that they follow international law and take feasible precautions to mitigate civilian harm.

But that is being called into question by many now. Even members of the U.S. Congress are urging the White House to start withholding U.S. military support unless Israel does more to reduce civilian harm.

With no IDF official willing to talk to us on camera, we went to the Knesset, where political decisions are made about the war effort.

Amit Halevi is a member of the prime minister’s ruling Likud party, and he’s on a security committee that recently moved to ban foreign news networks deemed a threat to national security. Halevi was criticized.

According to Yehuda Shaul, a co-director of the Ofek think tank in Jerusalem who has been documenting statements that have a potential to incite hate, Halevi said in a Knesset hearing in October that a goal for the IDF in Gaza should be that there is no more Muslim in the land of Israel.

“The land of Gaza is our land. This [Israel] is only one nation that has national rights over the land of Gaza. This is the Jewish people. This is the formal opinion, by the way, the formal view of the state of Israel,” Halevi told us.

After more than six months of war, it’s unclear what will happen next. At time of publication there was no sign of a cease-fire, or any deal for the hostages. Nearly 1.5 million Palestinians are still displaced and trapped inside Rafah, including Aila.

In the West Bank, the fallout from Oct. 7 continues — the violence is escalating, with the State Department saying it's “increasingly concerned."

Two weeks later, we heard the Tulkarem Brigade fighter we spoke to was killed. On that same day, an Israeli airstrike in Gaza killed seven aid workers from World Central Kitchen.

Meanwhile — also on the same day — the U.S. approved the transfer of thousands more bombs to Israel.

Looking ahead, the fear now is a wider war may be coming that brings the Middle East to an unprecedented tipping point.