The Kazans returned to Khan Yunis, devastated beyond recognition

After Israel withdrew its forces from southern Gaza's largest city of Khan Younis this weekend, civilians began to return. But following four months of war, what they found was not where they left.

“I can't recognize the place,” a Palestinian humanitarian worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, said in a telephone interview on Monday. “Even the streets don't exist anymore.”

His house, he said, “disappeared.” In its place were piles of rebar and cement. Nothing was spared: the house, he estimated, had been hit by an airstrike and then bulldozed. Other houses were burnt.

Residents returned to devastated Khan Yunis on April 7 after Israel withdrew all but one brigade from southern Gaza. (Video: Reuters)

On Sunday, Oct. 7, marking the six-month anniversary of the attack on Israel and the start of the devastating war that followed, the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement that it was withdrawing all but one force from southern Gaza. An apparent turning point in the conflict.

While residents of Khan Yunis are still traveling home, it's not back to normal. More than 33,000 people have been killed in the conflict in Gaza so far, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and militants, but says most of the dead are women and children. United Nations satellite images found 12,710 buildings destroyed in the city, second only to Gaza City.

Gaza's Civil Defense Ministry said on Monday that 28 decomposing bodies have so far been found around Khan Younis.

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Nasser Hospital, the city's main medical site, was still standing, but its interior was destroyed. Debris and crushed, overturned cars and trucks littered the surrounding streets.

The humanitarian worker borrowed his brother-in-law's jeep to drive from the coastal town of Mawasi to Khan Younis on Sunday, where he, his wife and six children fled in fear to their previous refuge of Rafah last month. Israel's next target.

He said the extent of the damage made navigation difficult. He stopped other cars and passers-by to reach his area. Old roads he knew well had been destroyed by airstrikes or blocked by rubble, he said. He took a detour and occasionally found new half-roads created by Israeli tanks.

When he arrived, his heart was heavy. “It was a total mess,” he said of his neighborhood: “Not only was it demolished, it was mutilated beyond recognition.”

Khan Yunis was home to about 400,000 people. It was the economic center of southern Gaza and had a rich cultural history.

The city swelled with displaced people after Israel warned residents of Gaza's densely populated north to leave on October 12. Two weeks later, after conducting airstrikes in the north, Israel launched its ground invasion.

Khan Yunis was prominent in Israel's military ambitions. It is the birthplace of Yehia Shinwar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Israeli officials say the city is a Hamas stronghold, and that Sinwar Khan is holed up in Yunis.

On December 4, Israeli forces moved into the southern border town of Rafah, urging civilians who had fled to Khan Yunis to intervene again.

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Roughly half of Gaza's pre-war population is crammed into Rafah, which inflated the small town's pre-war population with its tent cities. But despite warnings from the Israeli military about a possible Rafah offensive – which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in comments on Monday that must continue “to achieve victory” – some are too afraid to return.

“We are truly living the worst days of our lives” since the war began, said Muhammad al-Atrash, a 44-year-old father of three from Khan Yunis who now lives in a tent in Rafah. “We get everything through suffering. We depend on canned foods for our diet. We live in constant worry and fear.

Al-Atrash said on Sunday that the military operation in Khan Yunis had made the family home “unlivable”. β€œAll the doors and windows were broken. Walls are crumbling. We never lived safely.”

The humanitarian worker said that going back to her home in Khan Younis caused personal pain and she could not bear to go back again.

“My kids and wife insisted on going today,” he said on Monday. “They asked me to come with them and I said no.”

He tried to stop them from going. They hired a taxi anyway. “Nothing good can come of that,” he said.

Jennifer Hassan and Lear Soroka contributed to this report.

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