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Gazans return to scenes of devastation in Khan Younis

  • By Sébastien Usher
  • BBC News, Jerusalem

Video caption,

Watch: Palestinians return to Khan Younis, find houses in ruins

The devastated landscape of their city seems unreal to the thousands of Palestinians returning to Khan Younis, Gaza.

Through the rubble of the streets, they marched by bicycle, in a donkey cart and on foot, looking for their house or the traces that remained of it.

“I’m going to my house, even though I know it’s destroyed. I’m going to remove the rubble to take out a shirt,” said Mohammed Abou Diab.

The Israeli army has withdrawn its troops from southern Gaza, leaving only a single brigade in the area.

The smell of death is in the air, residents say, and bodies still lie beneath the ruins. The scale of the devastation shocked them.

“The destruction is enormous. Everything has to be rebuilt. It is not suitable for human beings, not even for animals,” Abu Saif Abu Mustafa told the BBC.

“It’s like an earthquake hit the city,” said Rashad Khamis al-Najjar, from the Khan Younis region, observing the scene.

“Houses are not habitable, mosques are not suitable for worship and roads and infrastructure, including electricity, have been completely destroyed.”

Another resident felt the same sense of horror at what he saw upon his return: “We see total destruction everywhere, as if it were an earthquake or a natural disaster .

“The houses that have not been destroyed are burned or looted by thieves. We are slowly dying. There are no houses to live in and we live like the dead.”

Gaza’s second city was the target of a sustained attack by the Israeli army starting in December, believing that Hamas leaders and fighters there had been driven from the north and had established a new stronghold in the tunnels and hospitals.

Image source, Getty Images


Much of the city is in ruins

Neighborhood by neighborhood, Israel ordered Palestinians to leave. The Israeli military said it was doing everything it could to protect civilians.

A town of some 400,000 inhabitants was gradually deserted by fierce bombardments by Israeli forces.

Almost from the moment Israel announced that its mission in Khan Younis was over and its troops had been withdrawn, Palestinians began leaving their overcrowded shelters further south toward their city.

But many have found that as their homes have become unlivable, they have no choice but to try to gather what is left and return to their temporary shelters.

One woman, Nour Ayyash, said she could not reach her apartment because the stairs had disappeared. His brother managed to climb up and collect clothes for his children.

Another returning resident told the BBC: “We came to collect some of our things, we wanted to see if there was anything left of our houses and take some of our things, like clothes for example.”

But some prefer to stay, even if nothing remains of what was once their home.

Mohammed Abu Rizzeq lost much more than his house: his wife was killed in an Israeli bombing after their displacement.

But he told the BBC: “Our biggest demand is that Israel withdraws from our country – there has been enough killing and destruction. It is better for us to have a tent on the rubble of our homes than to be displaced and in exile.”

The Israeli military stressed that a “significant force” would remain in Gaza after some troops left southern areas on Sunday. The withdrawal is being interpreted as a tactic rather than a sign that the war may be nearing its end.

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel had set a date for a planned military operation in the southern city of Rafah, where many people returning to Khan Younis had taken refuge. He gave no details.

More than a million Palestinians have sought refuge in Rafah after fleeing fighting in other areas – although that city has also been hit by Israeli airstrikes.

Mr Netanyahu said Israel wanted a complete victory over Hamas. “This victory requires entry into Rafah and the elimination of terrorist battalions. It will happen – there is a date.”

The United States has said it would not support a full-scale offensive in Rafah without a credible plan to protect civilians.

Ceasefire talks continue, with Qatar’s foreign ministry telling the BBC it was cautiously optimistic about a new proposal.

Hamas – which says it wants a definitive end to the war, a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and an influx of aid as part of any deal – said it was studying the latest proposal, without indicating whether its leaders would now feel ready to make concessions on its demands.

The same goes for the Israeli side. Israel says it wants hostages held by Hamas to be released in exchange for a temporary pause in fighting.

But Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said he believed it was an opportune time to strike a deal with Hamas.

Meanwhile, the leaders of France, Egypt and Jordan jointly called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Emmanuel Macron, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and King Abdullah also warned of an Israeli offensive in Rafah, which they said would “only bring more death and suffering.”

More than 33,000 Gazans have been killed during the Israeli offensive in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry, the majority of them civilians.

The war was sparked when Hamas attacked Israel’s southern border communities on October 7, killing 1,200 people and taking more than 250 hostage. Israel says that of 130 hostages still in Gaza, at least 34 are dead.

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