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

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu escalated his pledge to invade Rafah.

Palestinians walk through the destruction left by the Israeli air and ground offensive after they withdrew from Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, Sunday, April 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Ismael Abu Dayyah)
Palestinians walk through the destruction left by the Israeli air and ground offensive after they withdrew from Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, Sunday, April 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Ismael Abu Dayyah)

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Streams of Palestinians filed into the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis on Monday to salvage what they could from the vast destruction left in the wake of Israel’s offensive, a day after the Israeli military announced it was withdrawing troops from the area.

Those returning found their hometown, Gaza’s second largest city, unrecognizable, with thousands of buildings destroyed or damaged. Men, women and children went down streets bulldozed into stretches of dirt, searching for their homes among fields 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 of destruction in Khan Younis underscored what has been one of world’s most destructive and lethal military assaults in recent decades, which has left vast swaths 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 invade 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, which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada and the European Union.

Magdy Abu Sahrour was stunned seeing his house in Khan Younis flattened.

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

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 filtered into Khan Younis by foot and on donkey cart on Monday have been sheltering in Rafah since they fled their homes. The withdrawal gave them a chance to see the wreckage of their homes and retrieve a few 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 the latest figures from two researchers in the U.S. who have been using satellite imagery to track destruction throughout the war — Corey Scher of City University of New York and Jamon Van Den Hoek of Oregon State University.

Mahmoud Abdel-Ghani, who fled to Rafah in December, found his and his neighbors’ houses flattened. “Many areas, especially the city center, have become unfit for life,” he said.

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.

“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 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.

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 fighters 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 international alarm over the fate of the around 1.4 million Palestinians sheltering there, most displaced from other parts of the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s top ally, the U.S., 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 Israel official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were 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 also is likely filled with dangerous unexploded ordnance left by the fighting.

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, 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.

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 brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the U.S. meant to bring about a cease-fire in exchange for the release of hostages are underway.

Magdy reported from Cairo.