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

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DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Streams of Palestinians entered the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis on Monday to save what they could from destruction. great destruction abandoned after Israel’s offensive, a day after the Israeli army announced that withdraw troops from the area.

Those who returned found their hometown, Gaza’s second-largest city, unrecognizable, with thousands of buildings destroyed or damaged. Men, women and children walked along washed-out streets across stretches of land, searching for their homes among fields of rubble and rubble that were once apartment blocks and businesses. On other blocks, buildings were still standing, but they were gutted, charred, and hole-ridden husks, with partially shattered upper floors hanging precipitously.

Scenes of destruction in Khan Younis underlined what has happened one of the most destructive and lethal in the world military attacks in recent decades, which have left vast swaths of the small coastal territory uninhabitable for its 2.3 million inhabitants. He also foreshadowed what would probably happen in Rafah, the southernmost city of Gazawhere half of Gaza’s uprooted population is now crowded, if Israel goes ahead with its plans to invade.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped up his promise to invade Rafah, declaring in a video on Monday: “It will happen. There is a date”, without giving more details. He spoke as Israeli negotiators were in Cairo discussing international efforts to negotiate a ceasefire agreement with Hamas.

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

“I couldn’t find my house because of all the destruction,” he said as he stood in front of the rubble. “Where is my place, where is my home? … It is a tragic situation.”

Israel sent troops to Khan Younis in December, as part of its intense ground offensive in response to the October 7 Hamas attack and hostage taking in southern Israel. Their withdrawal brought Israeli troops in the small coastal enclave to one of the lowest levels since the war began.

The war now in his 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 approximately 250 kidnapped. hostage in the Hamas attack on October 7.

Many of the thousands of people who arrived in Khan Younis on foot or in donkey carts on Monday have taken refuge in Rafah since fleeing their homes. The retreat gave them the opportunity to see the remains of their homes and recover some belongings. But now that the city is uninhabitable, they said they had little immediate chance of returning.

An estimated 55% of buildings in the Khan Younis area (around 45,000 buildings) have been destroyed or damaged, according to the latest figures from two researchers in the United States who have been using satellite images to track destruction during the war. : Corey Scher. from the City University of New York and Jamon Van Den Hoek from Oregon State University.

Mahmoud Abdel-Ghani, who fled to Rafah in December, found his homes and those of his neighbors razed. “Many areas, especially the city center, have become uninhabitable,” he said.

A woman climbed over collapsed concrete slabs atop a mountain of rubble that was once her home. Her son crawled on all fours to a hole beneath the rubble and twisted rebar, removing 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… we grew up with them here… It’s all gone.” The woman, who identified herself only by her first name, Hanan, put some items she found in a backpack, including a red plastic flower.

The interior of the main Nasser hospital in Khan Yunis was destroyed, with debris scattered throughout 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 there were hostage remains inside, although 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 on a vast network of tunnels used by Hamas to move weapons and fighters. He also claimed to have found evidence that there were hostages in the city.

With the withdrawal of troops, Hamas could try to regroup there as it has done in northern Gaza, where the military previously reduced its forces.

Israel’s plans invade Rafahwhich it says is the last major stronghold of Hamas, have raised international alarm over the fate of around 1.4 million Palestinians taking refuge there, most displaced from other parts of the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s main ally, the United States, has said invading Rafah would be a mistake and has demanded to see a credible plan to protect civilians.

Israel is purchasing 40,000 tents to prepare for the evacuation of Rafah, an Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Allowing people to return to Khan Younis could relieve some pressure on Rafah, but many have no homes to return to. The city is also likely filled with dangerous unexploded ordnance left behind by the fighting.

Israel’s military quietly withdrew troops in devastated northern Gaza early in the war. But it has continued to carry out airstrikes and raids on areas where it says Hamas has regrouped, including Gaza’s largest hospital, Shifa, leaving what the head of the World Health Organization called “an empty shell.” Israel blames Hamas for the damage, saying it is fighting from civilian areas.

Israel says its war aims to destroy Hamas’s military and governance capabilities and return the approximately 130 remaining hostages, a quarter of whom Israel says are dead. Negotiations mediated by Qatar, Egypt and the United States aimed at achieving a ceasefire in exchange for the release of the hostages are underway.


Magdy reported from Cairo.


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