A futile David versus Goliath struggle in Gaza Strip
A laser-guided bomb falls from a cloudless sky with the speed and menace of a plunging dagger. In a split second, a building is pulverised into a swirling mass of smoke and rubble.
But this is Gaza – and everyone knows the sight and sound of an Israeli air strike. Inured to danger, people in the street nearby hardly pause.
As the weapon zeroes in on its target, drivers go on driving, pedestrians continue walking and a young man calmly halts his donkey cart. At the moment when the explosion takes place, three men nonchalantly cross the road.
This remarkable sequence of images captures the unique atmosphere of Gaza in the teeth of Israel's offensive. My 12 days witnessing Gaza's agony taught me that Israel's trial of strength with Hamas amounts to a clash of arms like no other. You learn a lot very quickly in Gaza. Contrary to Hollywood, the bombs pictured will not have whistled as it fell.
Nor will the projectile have exploded on impact. Last week, I stood inside the smouldering void carved through a ruined apartment block, observing how an advanced bomb destroys its target. First the sharp-nosed munition drills its way through every storey, before burying itself in the ground and then detonating.
If you believe that one explosion sounds much like another, then Gaza's ceaseless symphony of war will provide an education. After a few days, you will be able to distinguish the staccato thunderclaps of a naval bombardment from the deep and steady boom of an artillery barrage.
You will discover that Hamas rockets take off with a prolonged "whoosh", leaving trails of white smoke in the sky. You will lose the habit of being surprised by the extraordinary. Palestinians are nonchalant about air strikes. Dinner takes place outdoors, accompanied by constant explosions.
But most of all, you learn that conflict in Gaza is fundamentally different – more intense and more perilous for ordinary people – than just about anywhere else in the world.
Why is that? First and foremost because the Palestinians of Gaza have no way to escape. In other wars, civilians gather what they can and walk to safety.
Gaza's 1.8 million inhabitants have no such option. Their world measures 25 miles in length and seven in breadth – and just about everywhere inside that area has come under attack.
All that families can do is bed down in the nearest United Nations property and hope for the best. When I arrived in Gaza, some 30,000 refugees were sheltering in UN premises; by Friday, that total had risen to almost 240,000.
And about half of Gaza's people are under the age of 18. No one can fight in Gaza without killing, maiming, displacing or traumatising legions of children.
This is not a campaign waged in empty desert or mountains, but an urban struggle, fought in narrow alleyways usually crowded with infants and families.
In fairness, Israel tries to clear the battlefield beforehand. People in the areas singled out for attack receive leaflets, text messages and voicemails telling them to leave. I do not question the sincerity of these efforts, but offer three observations.
First, Israel now controls a buffer zone stretching for two miles along Gaza's northern and eastern borders, covering 44pc of the territory's surface area. Everyone living inside that area has been told to leave.
Second, events have demonstrated that Gaza has no safe place of refuge. Twice, Israeli forces have bombarded UN schools housing the displaced: in Jabaliya on Wednesday, 16 people were killed.
Third, if Israel now expands the ground operation, even more Palestinians will be forced from their homes. Where will they go? Every available UN school is already packed.
Whatever threadbare system exists for sheltering the fugitives is, in the words of Chris Gunness, the local UN spokesman, "at breaking point".
Make no mistake: if Israel escalates this operation, then the people of Gaza will be herded into ever-shrinking pockets of supposed safety, where they will be corralled in ever-greater squalor. What could possibly justify such suffering?
This brings us to the second reason why Gaza's tragedy is different. Even by the standards of wars down the ages, this one is singularly futile.
Israel is not fighting to destroy Hamas. Its aim is to punish the Islamist movement for firing rockets and delay the moment when Hamas will be able to resume launching missiles. So Israel is struggling for tactical advantage in a campaign that it expects to repeat, time and again.
And Hamas? The main aim of the rockets is to achieve psychological solace. Over dinner in a Palestinian home last week, the thunder of artillery was briefly drowned by the whoosh of rockets taking off nearby. In the street outside, people cheered. Why the jubilation, I asked?
The Arab countries dare not throw so much as a tennis ball at Israel, I was told. But Gaza – little, impoverished, blockaded Gaza – can launch 100 rockets a day.
Palestinians are enduring their nightmare with profound courage. Yet they are trapped in a vortex of suffering with no discernible end. (© Daily Telegraph, London)