Palestinians return to the devastated city of Khan Younis in Gaza: ‘They have spared nothing’

Palestinians are slowly returning to the devastated city of Khan Younis in southern Gaza to find their homes completely destroyed with piles of rubble lying in bombed-out craters.

Picking their way through twisted metal and shattered buildings, it seems extraordinary anyone would ever go back – but they fear what the Israeli military may have planned next.

Many of those heading home, after months of heavy bombardment and battles in the streets, have come from the city of Rafah, at the southernmost tip of Gaza. Israeli officials say the withdrawal of troops from Khan Younis was part of a regrouping in preparation for an offensive on Rafah, where more than 1 million Palestinians are believed to be sheltering.

For Khalil Haddad, his wife and three children, there is nothing left of their home in Khan Younis. But they feel an overwhelming sense of relief that they will not be in Rafah and threatened by an Israeli onslaught.

“People are terrified of what could happen in Rafah. The main thing is to keep the family alive. Khan Younis has really been destroyed, but at least there won’t be any fighting. We’ll find somewhere to stay and then bring my father and mother out. I cannot rest until we do that,” said the 48-year-old carpenter.

“We cannot really stay in our house. We also had relations living here, maybe they have somewhere we can live for the time being. I don’t know what will happen in the future here. It has been really terrible for the last six months since the war started. But we were afraid if we stayed in Rafah some of us could die.”

In a video address as people streamed back into Khan Younis, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu escalated his pledge to invade Rafah, declaring: “There is a date.” Mr Netanyahu said the Rafah operation is essential for victory. “It will happen,” he said, without elaborating. The US State Department later said it hadn’t been briefed on a date for an assault on Rafah.

Palestinians walk through the destruction yesterday left by the Israeli air and ground offensive in Khan Younis (AP)
Palestinians walk through the destruction yesterday left by the Israeli air and ground offensive in Khan Younis (AP)

Jamila El Masry said Khan Younis is unrecognisable from when she and her family fled to Rafah on the instructions of the Israeli military. “We knew they had been bombing [the city] for months. But we did not expect this. They have spared nothing. It will all have to be rebuilt. But who’s going to do it?”

It comes as calls grow for a ceasefire in Gaza, with the Palestinian death toll at more than 33,000 according to health officials in the Hamas-run strip. Nations including the UK and US – Israel‘s staunchest ally – have been calling for Mr Netanyahu’s government to allow more aid into Gaza. Months of aerial bombardment, a ground assault and a blockade triggered by the Hamas attack inside Israel on 7 October have left areas of northern Gaza facing famine. Around 1,100 Israelis were killed and another 250 were taken hostage in the Hamas attack.

The US has also stepped up its calls for a ceasefire in recent weeks and on Monday the White House said the director of the CIA, William Burns, had been in Cairo for a “serious round” of negotiations for a ceasefire and the release of the remaining hostages in Gaza, believed to number around 130 – although Israel believes a quarter of that number are dead. White House spokesperson John Kirby said the United States was taking the discussions very seriously and that a deal to release hostages would include a ceasefire of around six weeks.

Although Hamas rejected the latest Israeli ceasefire proposal suggested at discussions in Cairo on Monday night, mediator Qatar said there was cautious optimism around the talks, with a new proposal potentially closing the gaps between Israel and Hamas. Qatar Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majed Mohammed al-Ansari told the BBC: “If you ask me if I’m more optimistic today than I was a couple of days ago, I would say, yes.”

However, he cautioned: “We are by no means at the last stretch of the talks.”

Many former residents are returning to find their homes reduced to rubble in Khan Younis (AFP)
Many former residents are returning to find their homes reduced to rubble in Khan Younis (AFP)

Two Egyptian security sources and the state-run Al-Qahera News said on Monday some progress had been made in the Cairo talks. The security sources told Reuters that both sides had made concessions that could help pave the way for a deal for a truce which – as proposed during previous talks – would be staggered over three stages, with the release of any remaining Israeli hostages and a long-term ceasefire addressed in the second stage. However, a Hamas official claimed to Reuters that no progress was made in the latest talks.

Asked about the talks by reporters on Monday, Israeli government spokesperson Avi Hyman would not go into detail, saying only: “The most important thing is that the right people are in the right place at the right time to discuss a way in which the 133 Israeli hostages can be released.”

In terms of aid, the White House said that 300 aid trucks entered Gaza on Sunday, and that it would keep pressing for more. Qatar’s Mr Ansari said his nation was encouraged to see more aid taken into the besieged territory, but that it was nowhere near what was needed.

For those returning to Khan Younis, they have lost everything. Mahmoud Abdel-Ghani, who fled to Rafah in December, found him and his neighbours’ houses flattened. “Many areas, especially the city centre, have become unfit for life,” he told the Associated Press.

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

A Palestinian family returns to Khan Younis (Reuters)
A Palestinian family returns to Khan Younis (Reuters)

“There are no words to describe the pain inside me,” the woman said to the AP, her voice breaking. “Our memories, our dreams, our childhood here, our family – we were raised with them here – 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.

There is also the threat of unexploded bombs or other remnants from Israel’s fight with Hamas.

An estimated 55 per cent of the buildings in the Khan Younis area – around 45,000 buildings – have been destroyed or damaged, according to the latest figures from two researchers, Corey Scher of City University of New York and Jamon Van Den Hoek of Oregon State University, who have been using satellite imagery to track destruction throughout the war.

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

The move to withdraw most Israeli troops from southern Gaza sparked alarm among far-right members of Mr Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Israel’s national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, warned that “if Netanyahu decides to end the war without an expansive assault in Rafah, he won’t have the mandate to serve as prime minister”.

The UK is among those to have warned against an assault on Rafah, and over the weekend, the foreign secretary, David Cameron, said that Britain’s support for Israel to defend itself would not be “unconditional”.

Writing in The Sunday Times, he said: “Of course our backing is not unconditional: we expect such a proud and successful democracy to abide by international humanitarian law, even when challenged in this way. As an occupying power, Israel has a responsibility to the people of Gaza.”

On Saturday, Lord Cameron said a Royal Navy ship had been deployed to help supply “life-saving aid” to Gaza, with the situation inside the strip being “dire” as “the prospect of famine is real”.