Jason Shawa and his family fled their home in Gaza City in mid-November as Israeli bombs reduced the city to rubble.
A month later, in Cairo, the author and translator heard from a friend who had stopped by what remained of the house and reported that Israeli soldiers had been living there. “There were traces of cooking and military rations,” he said.
The house had been trashed, but he also made a curious discovery. “We have a very old safe that contains nothing,” said Mr Shawa. “The soldiers tried to open it. My friend said that the physical appearance of the safe showed that they used heavy duty tools that would not be available to an ordinary thief.”
While Palestinians in Gaza are facing bombs, displacement and starvation, there is growing evidence that they are being robbed too. Humanitarian groups in Gaza say they are receiving complaints of widespread looting by Israeli soldiers of money, jewellery, ancient artefacts and even animals, often from depopulated areas as they are razed to the ground.
In many cases, Israelis have allegedly provided evidence of thefts via photos and video. “He came back with gifts from Gaza,” posted a Facebook user with an image of a bag of cosmetics.
“Your boyfriend bought you a new necklace,” says a soldier displaying jewellery on TikTok. Another video from a soldier’s TikTok appears to show troops attempting to break into a safe with power tools.
i put the allegations of widespread looting to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), which said that claims were being investigated.
“The IDF has acted and continues to act to identify unusual cases that deviate from what is expected of IDF soldiers,” a spokesperson said. “Those cases will be arbitrated, and significant command measures will be taken against the soldiers involved.”
The IDF separately acknowledged investigations into alleged stealing of animals, after social media videos appeared to show soldiers adopting cats, dogs, camels and donkeys.
“The IDF does not permit soldiers to transfer animals from Gaza to Israel. Requests to do so are considered only in unusual cases where the animal is wounded and in need of assistance,” a spokesperson told the Times of Israel.
But the military could not confirm whether any soldiers had been charged or punished over looting cases.
Looting reports are common and varied, says Ramy Abdu, chairman of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor group, which has been collating allegations through its field researchers in Gaza.
The group received a report of two paintings disappearing from a house in the devastated city of Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza, he said. Another family returned to their home after being displaced to find their child’s Xbox console missing.
Looting has often gone hand in hand with destruction, Mr Abdu added, citing one report from al-Bahar tower block in Gaza City. “Soldiers destroyed everything in the flat, and people saw them carrying bags from it,” he said. “Then they took photos outside with the burning flat behind them.”
Palestinians have been watching the destruction and theft of their property on social media. Musician Hamad Nasrallah says he saw soldiers playing his guitar – a gift from his late father – in the ruins of his home in northern Gaza.
“My dad died shortly after the 2014 attack on Gaza, and now they have come to take the last souvenir I have from him,” he wrote on social media.
A recent study of satellite imagery from researchers at City University of New York found an astonishing level of destruction in the Strip, with more than half of all buildings destroyed or damaged.
The IDF has destroyed entire neighbourhoods through controlled demolitions, a New York Times investigation revealed. The military has also been systematically burning homes in Gaza after occupying them, according to Israeli media reports.
Such practices have led the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing to suggest that Israel could be charged with domicide, a new category of crime referring to the deliberate mass destruction of housing.
Thefts are occurring outside homes too, according to Tahseen Elayyan, a legal researcher at the oldest Palestinian human rights group, Al Haq.
“Money and valuables that people are carrying gets confiscated when people go through Israeli checkpoints in Gaza,” he said, citing a recent case in which the group was told that Israeli forces had confiscated 10,000 shekels (£2,150) from a 14-year-old girl. “The money was her family’s.”
“In addition, money changers have been raided and the money there was taken,” Mr Elayyan added. “Israeli occupying authorities justify this under the pretext that the money belongs to Hamas.”
Israel’s defence ministry announced in November that soldiers had seized five million shekels (£1.08m) in Gaza, which it said came from Hamas members’ homes.
Looting allegations have emerged during previous invasions of Gaza. Three Israeli soldiers were indicted for stealing cash from Palestinians’ homes during the 2014 war.
Israel also acknowledged disciplinary issues among its forces during this war. The IDF said it would punish soldiers who filmed themselves desecrating mosques in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.
But Palestinians also allege complicity at a higher level. Earlier this month, the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), Eli Eskozido, posted videos showing Israeli soldiers inspecting a warehouse in Gaza containing artefacts, later identified as a facility of the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem.
In posts that have since been deleted, Mr Eskozido said that his deputy had been sent to inspect the artefacts and appeared to suggest that some had been put on display in Israel’s parliament building. “A small showcase was placed in the Knesset,” he said.
The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities accused Israel of a war crime. “The intrusion into the archaeological warehouse in Gaza is a serious violation and a threat to Palestinian heritage, violating international agreements such as… the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict,” the ministry said.
An IAA spokesperson said: “After the IAA examined the antiquities warehouse in Gaza, the finds of the excavations were left in place, in accordance with the international conventions.
“Due to concerns about the ancient findings, that are located in an active combat zone, the IAA, as the body entrusted with heritage preservation, has established contact with the French entities responsible for the excavation.”
Israeli heritage group Emek Shaveh has published what it claims are internal documents from the IAA that indicate plans to remove antiques, in potential violation of the laws of war. A spokesperson told i that there is “reason for concern if the official position will be followed through”.
The group acknowledged that there are grey areas over laws on the protection of antiques in war zones, and certain conditions that could allow for their removal, but expressed doubt that Israel was acting in accordance with them.
Emek Shaveh also expressed concern over the “massive destruction of cultural properties” in Gaza during the war, which has seen ancient monuments dating back to biblical times damaged or destroyed.
“There are no red lines” for Israel in Gaza, Mr Abdu says, suggesting that soldiers have been given a free hand to loot and destroy.
For many survivors of this destructive war, there may be little or nothing to return to.