Ghost towns and tanks: Israel prepares for ground invasion

Evidence of looming operation becomes visible across south of country

Israeli city of Sderot a ghost town as country prepares for invasion of Gaza

Israeli city of Sderot a ghost town as country prepares for invasion of Gaza
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Tanks strapped to the back of lorries rumble down Highway 3 in southern Israel.

A group of children stand on the motorway median, waving the white and blue Israeli flag, and cheer on passing soldiers as they race in armoured vehicles south towards the border with Gaza.

Israel is preparing for its much-anticipated ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.

The evidence of the looming operation is everywhere in southern Israel.

Motorways that were empty just a few days ago are now getting busier, although roads still remain empty close to Gaza, where rockets continue to fly at the highest rate.

The parked cars of reservists spill out on to the hard shoulder and central reservation on any stretch of motorway close to a military base.

Vast army transport planes fly into one of the bases at uncommonly high frequency, yet another sign that something major is afoot.

In Sderot, a city that came under heavy attack from Hamas militants on October 7, by far most of the residents have fled, leaving behind empty streets strewn with the debris of war, and soldiers preparing for battle.

“The city is completely quiet,” said Ayelet Shmuel, who works at the International Resilience Centre in Sderot, a city of more than 30,000 near the northern tip of Gaza. “There is no one in, no one out.”

The city was the site of fierce fighting between Hamas and Israel on October 7. Hamas militants took over the city’s police headquarters, killing scores of officers and civilians in the process.

Rather than retake the station, the Israeli military sent in bulldozers to destroy the building while the militants were still inside.

Those bulldozers can now be seen on the backs of lorries, which are taking them to Gaza. They would be a crucial tool in the much-anticipated event of an Israeli ground invasion into the strip.

Military fuel trucks, reminiscent of the ones that carry massive armaments in the Ukraine war, follow close behind.

More than a week later and Sderot remains a shell of itself and still under threat.

The city's close proximity to Gaza has made it especially vulnerable to rocket attacks, which have struck it repeatedly in the nine days since Hamas’s incursion.

“We're seeing a lot of direct hits,” Ms Shmuel told The National.

While Sderot and neighbouring cities Ashkelon and Ashdod still take the brunt of the rockets, rarer salvos were launched at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on Monday afternoon, a sign that Gaza militants still have supplies of their most sophisticated armaments.

Israel has called up about 360,000 reservist soldiers as it prepares to enter Gaza.

The military has amassed a huge amount of equipment around the tiny stretch of coast, which is an area not much bigger than the island of Manhattan in New York.

When the invasion begins, it is likely to be significant, said retired Brig Gen Yossi Kuperwasser, who was head of the research division of Israeli's military intelligence.

“It's about massive force,” said Brig Gen Kuperwasser. “It's about using force in a very convincing manner to get them wherever they are, on the ground or under the ground.”

Israel has already dropped more than 6,000 bombs on Gaza, killing 2,750 Palestinians and wounding 9,700, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

After Israeli bombs dramatically reshaped the strip, it is unclear what kind of landscape Israeli soldiers will encounter.

Brig Gen Kuperwasser told The National that Israel would be throwing everything into the incursion.

“But the question is whether there are going to be streets [left to invade].”

Updated: October 17, 2023, 7:30 AM