Palestinians returning to Khan Younis after Israeli withdrawal find an unrecognizable city

Apr 8, 2024, 2:32 AM | Updated: 6:52 pm

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Stunned Palestinians found their home city unrecognizable Monday as they filtered in to salvage what they could from the vast destruction left by Israeli troops who withdrew from southern Gaza’s Khan Younis a day earlier after months of fighting and bombardment.

With thousands of buildings destroyed or damaged, families tried to find their homes along streets bulldozed down to the dirt, surrounded by landscapes of rubble and debris that were once blocks of apartments and businesses. On other blocks, buildings still stood but were gutted shells, scorched and full of holes, with partially shattered upper floors dangling off precipitously.

The scenes in Khan Younis underscored what has been one of the world’s most destructive and lethal military assaults in recent decades, leaving most of the tiny coastal territory unlivable for its 2.3 million people. It also portended what is likely to happen in Gaza’s southernmost town of Rafah, where half of Gaza’s uprooted population is now crowded, if Israel goes ahead with plans to invade it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu escalated his pledge to take the offensive to Rafah, declaring in a video statement Monday, “It will happen. There is a date,” without elaborating. He spoke as Israeli negotiators were in Cairo discussing international efforts to broker a cease-fire deal with Hamas.

Magdy Abu Sahrour was shocked to see his house in Khan Younis flattened.

“I couldn’t find my home because of all the destruction,” he said, standing in front of the rubble. “Where is my place, where is my home?”

Israel sent troops into Khan Younis in December, part of its blistering ground offensive that came in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack and hostage-taking into southern Israel. Its withdrawal brought Israeli troops in the tiny coastal enclave to one of the lowest since the war began.

The war, now in its seventh month, has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, according to local health authorities. Israeli authorities say 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed and roughly 250 people taken hostage in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

Many of the thousands who came to Khan Younis by foot and on donkey carts on Monday have been sheltering in Rafah. The withdrawal gave them a chance to see the wreckage of their homes and retrieve some possessions. But with the city now unlivable, they said they had little immediate chance to return.

An estimated 55% of the buildings in the Khan Younis area – around 45,000 buildings – have been destroyed or damaged, according to Corey Scher of City University of New York and Jamon Van Den Hoek of Oregon State University, two mapping experts who have been using satellite imagery to track destruction.

“Where do I sleep? Where do I go?” Heba Sahloul’s aged mother sobbed in despair, sitting amid the rubble of the family’s living room. Her daughters searched for anything they could take with them. The room’s walls were blown away and the floor was piled with chunks of concrete, slabs of the ceiling and broken countertops. Only the columns painted pink gave any sign it had once been their home.

Sahloul said Israeli troops ordered them to leave during the fighting. “We left all our things here, and we went out with only our clothes,” she said. Her father was killed earlier in the assault, leaving Sahloul, her sisters and her mother. “We are only six women at home and we do not know where to go,” Sahloul said.

One woman clambered over collapsed concrete slabs atop a mountain of her home’s wreckage. Her son crawled on all fours into a hollow under the rubble and twisted rebar, clearing away concrete blocks.

“There are no words to describe the pain inside me,” the woman said, her voice breaking. “Our memories, our dreams, our childhood here, our family … It’s all gone.” The woman, who identified herself only by her first name, Hanan, put a few items they found into a backpack, including a plastic red flower.

Khan Younis’ main Nasser Hospital was trashed inside, with debris strewn around the wards and ceiling panels collapsed. The exterior appeared largely intact, but the extent of the damage was not immediately clear. Israeli troops stormed the facility during the offensive, saying they believed the remains of hostages were inside, though they did not report finding any.

Israel said Khan Younis was a major Hamas stronghold and that its operations there killed thousands of militants and inflicted heavy damage to a vast network of tunnels used by Hamas to move weapons and fighters. It also claimed to have found evidence that hostages were held in the city.

With the troops’ withdrawal, Hamas could seek to regroup there as it has in northern Gaza, where the military scaled back forces earlier.

Israel plans to invade Rafah, which it says is Hamas’ last major stronghold, have raised global alarm over the fate of the around 1.4 million Palestinians sheltering there. Israel’s top ally, the U.S., has said invading Rafah would be a mistake and has demanded a credible plan to protect civilians.

Israel is purchasing 40,000 tents to prepare for the evacuation of Rafah, an Israel official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. It was not clear where they would be set up and how many people they could house. Allowing people to return to Khan Younis could relieve some pressure on Rafah, but many have no homes to return to.

In northern Gaza, the Israeli military has continued to carry out airstrikes and raids in areas where it says Hamas regrouped. Last month, troops stormed Gaza’s largest hospital, Shifa, in a raid that triggered two weeks of fighting in and around the facility. Israel says it killed some 200 Hamas fighters in the raid, but hospital officials say many civilians were among the dead.

On Monday, forensic experts from Gaza’s Health Ministry were still removing bodies from the yard of Shifa Hospital, where the main buildings were left as burned-out shattered husks. Workers lifted body parts out of the dirt and put them into plastic sacks. It was not clear how many were recent dead and how many came from a mass grave that was dug in the hospital in November to bury war casualties.

Hussein Muhaisen, director of ambulances in the Gaza Strip, said the number of dead was still not known. He said he found the bodies of a woman and children whose hands were bound. His account could not be independently confirmed. Israel says no civilians were killed during its raid.

Israel says its war aims to destroy Hamas’ military and governing capabilities and return the roughly 130 remaining hostages, a quarter of whom Israel says are dead.

Negotiations mediated by Qatar, Egypt and the U.S. over a cease-fire and exchange of captives continue. But Israel and Hamas appear to remain far apart. In a statement Monday, Hamas said the latest response it has received from Israel does not include a permanent crease-fire or the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. It has repeatedly said both terms are unnegotiable, while Israel has firmly rejected them.


Magdy reported from Cairo.


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