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Analysis shows destruction and possible buffer zone along Gaza Strip's border with Israel

JERUSALEM (AP) — Satellite photos show new demolition along a 1-kilometer-wide path on the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, according an analysis by The Associated Press and expert reports. The destruction comes as Israel has said it wants to establish a buffer zone there, over international objections, further tearing away at land the Palestinians want for a state.

The demolition along the path represents only a sliver of the wider damage from the Israel-Hamas war seen in Gaza that one assessment suggests has damaged or destroyed half of all the buildings within the coastal enclave.

Israeli leaders have signaled that they would like to establish a buffer zone as a defensive measure, which they contend could prevent a repeat of the Oct. 7 cross-border attack by Hamas that triggered the nearly 4-month-old war. That's despite U.S. warnings not to shrink Gaza's territory.

Israel's military declined to answer whether it is carving out a buffer zone when asked by the AP, only saying it “takes various imperative actions that are needed in order to implement a defense plan that will provide improved security in southern Israel.” However, the military has acknowledged it has demolished buildings throughout the area.

An Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing internal deliberations, said a “temporary security buffer zone” is under construction. It's unclear whether it would include barriers or empty stretches of patrolled land.

But the scope of the demolitions calls into question how temporary the possible buffer zone will be.

WHERE IS THE PROPOSED BUFFER ZONE?

Gaza has a nearly 60-kilometer (37-mile) border with Israel, with its back up against the Mediterranean Sea. Creating that buffer zone would take some 60 square kilometers (23 square miles) out of the enclave, which has a total landmass of about 360 square kilometers (139 square miles).

Toward the southern part of the Gaza Strip, much of the land in the imagined buffer zone is farmland that abuts the vast $1 billion border barrier constructed on Israeli land that separates it from the territory. But near the town of Khirbet Khuzaa, where the border turns to the northwest, it’s a different story.

Satellite images from Planet Labs PBC analyzed by the AP show significant destruction of buildings and land bulldozed in a roughly 6-square-kilometer (2.3-square-mile) area. Just over 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) north, farmland has been torn up into bare dirt along where the potential buffer zone would sit.

Farther north is an area in central Gaza’s Maghazi refugee camp. There, Israeli reservists preparing explosives to demolish two buildings near the Israeli border were killed in January when a militant fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a tank nearby. The blast triggered the explosives, collapsing both two-story buildings onto the soldiers, killing 21.

A large complex of warehouses sits destroyed just southeast of Gaza City, also within the potential buffer zone.

The AP’s visual analysis corresponds with data from scientists studying satellite data to make sense of the war’s damage.

Adi Ben-Nun, the manager of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Geographic Information System Center, has surveyed damage along the potential buffer zone up until Jan. 17. Of some 2,850 buildings that could potentially face demolition, 1,100 already have been damaged, he told the AP. Across the Gaza Strip, he estimates 80,000 structures have been damaged during the war.

Corey Scher of City University of New York and Jamon Van Den Hoek of Oregon State University put the damage even higher. They estimate at least half of all buildings in Gaza, some 143,900 structures, have been damaged or destroyed during the war. The most intense damage has been around Gaza City — the first city targeted in the ground offensive — though damage has increased in the southern city of Khan Younis.

In the area where the 1-kilometer buffer would be, at least 1,329 buildings have been damaged or destroyed since the war began, the U.S. analysts told the AP.

Gaza’s border with Egypt already has a narrow buffer zone known as Philadelphi Corridor, which was created as part of Cairo’s 1979 peace deal with Israel.

HOW HAS THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY RESPONDED?

In December, Israel informed Western allies and regional Arab nations about its plans to create a buffer zone between the Gaza Strip and Israeli territory, Egyptian and Western diplomats told the AP. The discussions then did not include specifics.

News of the buffer zone sparked worries from the international community about eating further into Palestinian territory, particularly in the U.S., which has been Israel’s main backer during the war.

“We do not support any diminution of the territory of Gaza,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned on Jan. 25.

The State Department did not respond to questions from the AP on the analysis of the demolition in the possible buffer zone. However, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller on Wednesday told journalists that officials had “raised with (Israel) the issue of the establishment of a buffer zone.”

“I will say we have made clear to them the same thing that we have said publicly, which is we are opposed to any reduction in the size of the territory of Gaza,” Miller said.

WHAT DO THE PALESTINIANS SAY?

Meanwhile, there has been a continued growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the far-right government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

That further undermines the prospects for an independent Palestinian state in the long-sought two-state solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian crisis. The Palestinians want the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — for their future state.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry, under the Palestinian Authority that oversees the occupied West Bank, said in a statement that “Israel continues to implement its occupation and colonial projects in the Gaza Strip, evident in its recent initiation of what it calls 'buffer zones' along the borders of Gaza Strip.”

Senior Hamas official Basem Naim said the group, which rules the Gaza Strip, was “determined not to let this happen“ when asked about the possible Israeli plans for a buffer zone. He did not elaborate.

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Associated Press writers Josef Federman and Isabel DeBre contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the Israel-Hamas war at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war