By Ronen Zvulun
NORTHERN GAZA (Reuters) - Blackened windows, shattered bedrooms, pockmarked walls. Wherever you look in northern Gaza, you see destruction and desolation a month into Israel's military campaign to oust Hamas from the enclave.
Israeli forces gave a small group of foreign reporters a rare view of their advance into the Palestinian territory on Wednesday, driving them along sandy routes, churned by tank tracks, to the fringes of Gaza City.
Stopping at a cluster of apartment blocks, every building within sight is scarred by battle. Walls have been blown away, bullet holes and shrapnel dot the facades, the palm trees are shredded and broken.
"It's been a long two weeks of fighting. It is not an operation, it is a war," said Lieutenant Colonel Ido, deputy commander of the 401st brigade. He did not give his last name. "It is going to last a long time, until Hamas no longer exists."
Israeli forces entered Gaza on Oct. 27 after days of heavy bombardment in response to a surprise Hamas attack through the border fence on Oct. 7, which Israel says killed 1,400 people.
Over the past 12 days, thousands of Israeli troops have encircled Gaza City, effectively cutting the densely populated coastal enclave into two, as they look to hunt down and eliminate Hamas fighters.
Very few details have emerged about the invasion. Reuters footage shot during the 1-1/2-hour tour on Wednesday was reviewed by the Israeli army as a condition for having a journalist embedded. No material was removed.
The military has repeatedly told civilians to leave the north and head to the southern end of the enclave. Ido said that by the time they had reached this cluster of buildings, all the families had packed and left.
"So we know that everyone here is our enemy. We have not seen any civilians here. Only Hamas," he said, standing in a badly damaged children's bedroom that was painted pink.
The mirror behind him was smashed and bags, toys and a doll lay discarded on the floor.
The soldiers said that beneath the family apartment there were two floors of workshops that had been used to make weapons, including drones that were discovered in five wooden boxes.
The workrooms contained metal lathes, hand tools and grey casings, but it was not possible to verify what had been made there.
The reporters were driven to the site in a heavily armoured, hi-tech vehicle known as a Tiger, which has no windows. Instead screens connected to cameras on the outside show the occupants where they are going.
Piles of earth have been banked up to give protection to army vehicles parked outside the wrecked buildings. Idling tanks have sturdy metal grills on top to protect them from possible drone attack from the air.
A lone chicken ran around under the tanks.
According to latest figures released on Wednesday, 31 Israeli soldiers have been killed during the Gaza ground offensive, and more than 260 injured. Palestinian officials say 10,569 people have been killed by Israeli forces since Oct. 7, 40% of them children.
Booms and explosions could be heard in the distance as Israel pressed further into the Gaza Strip. Soldiers suggested they were moving cautiously.
"We are getting to know the enemy a little bit more and more. Every house we get into we try and be careful," said one soldier, who did not give his name.
(Reporting by Ronen Zvulun; Writing by Crispian Balmer; editing by Grant McCool)