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A first glimpse of Khan Younis, a Gaza city now lying in ruins

Palestinians returning to Khan Younis to survey the damage to their homes after Israeli forces withdrew from the city following a four-month battle with Hamas there.
Anas Baba
Palestinians returning to Khan Younis to survey the damage to their homes after Israeli forces withdrew from the city following a four-month battle with Hamas there.

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip — Umm Ahmad Il-Sibaee stands silently with her purse among gray hills of cement. Her damaged building, one of the few left standing, is blocked by a mound of rubble.

"I cannot express to you my feelings," she says, and begins to cry.

Israel withdrew its troops from the city on Sunday, after a fierce four-month battle with Hamas, the longest ground battle of the Gaza war. Now Palestinians are returning to discover an utterly destroyed city.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel has dismantled Hamas as a functioning military unit in the area. With the withdrawal, Israel has removed most of its ground troops from Gaza.

Israeli military reporters say the troop withdrawal will allow civilians who escaped to Rafah, Gaza's southernmost city, to return. But most have nowhere to move back to.

More than 80% of Khan Younis's buildings are estimated to be destroyed and the rest mostly uninhabitable, according to an initial assessment by the Khan Younis municipality.

"The level of destruction in Khan Younis is way beyond description," says municipality spokesman Saeb Laqan. "Most of the displaced who came back today had to go back to their sheltering tents in Rafah after seeing the level of the disaster."

Salvaging what they can

Many Palestinians returned to the city to gather their belongings, fearing looters. They salvaged couches, plastic chairs and clothes from their homes and drove them back to their tents in the south.

Palestinians displaced from Khan Younis returned after Israel's withdrawal to salvage belongings from their homes.
/ Anas Baba
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Anas Baba
Palestinians displaced from Khan Younis returned after Israel's withdrawal to salvage belongings from their homes.

One man struggled to remove the metal bars he attached to his door to prevent intruders when he evacuated his home months ago.

A young boy carried a bundle of tall wooden beams on his back, to use for firewood.

A group of men compared the wide-scale destruction to wars in Syria and Ukraine. A 14th century historical building, Barquq Fort, was partly damaged.

"There's no Khan Younis," says Aya Al-Akkad, living in a tent in Rafah and back in Khan Younis to see what had become of her home. "God damn Sinwar."

Khan Younis is the home city of Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader who launched the Oct. 7 attack on Israel that sparked the war.

"Oh world, we have been destroyed and our houses have been destroyed," chants Sami Irbaya in an improvised lament, as he walks his bicycle along a cinderblock-strewn street.

"Oh Hamas, dance like a bride and enjoy yourself," he chanted, mocking Hamas for the destruction.

Israeli soldiers left Hebrew graffiti spray-painted on the outside of destroyed homes. Some left messages with the names of their girlfriends. "Noa, now also all of Khan Younis knows that you are the love of my life," reads one Hebrew message on the balcony of a destroyed building.

Palestinians returning to Khan Younis on April 8 found immense damage after Israeli forces withdrew from the city after a four-month battle with Hamas there. Many had to go back to tent shelters in Rafah after seeing the extent of damage to their homes.
/ Anas Baba
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Anas Baba
Palestinians returning to Khan Younis on April 8 found immense damage after Israeli forces withdrew from the city after a four-month battle with Hamas there. Many had to go back to tent shelters in Rafah after seeing the extent of damage to their homes.

The Israeli military said it would take "command measures" against soldiers whose actions "deviate from what is expected," but did not say whether this graffiti message violated military protocol. Israeli media have reported that soldiers in Gaza were ordered not to write graffiti messages.

Searching for her son's body

The city's main hospital, the Nasser Medical Complex, now stands empty. Israeli soldiers scrawled writing on the walls of the hospital rooms. Some of the writing was apparently to inform other soldiers the room had been searched.

Gurneys are strewn in the hospital courtyard. One medical building in the complex, with the Hebrew name "Moshe" sprayed on the front, was torched.

In the courtyard stands Umm Mohammed Qanita, digging in the sand with her hands, looking for the body of her 17-year-old son Mohammed.

She says she had been sheltering in the courtyard of the hospital with her family at the beginning of the battle, in December, when her son was shot and killed on the hospital grounds as he was on his way to purchase some items.

She says she buried him between a palm tree and an olive tree, and fled.

A view from a destroyed building in Khan Younis caused by Israeli attacks.
/ Anas Baba for NPR
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Anas Baba for NPR
A view from a destroyed building in Khan Younis caused by Israeli attacks.

She's back to find the trees uprooted. She fears her son's body was dug up. Israeli troops have exhumed graves, looking for the remains of Israeli captives, and have returned bodies of Palestinians to Gaza throughout the war. Over the weekend, Israel said it retrieved the body of one civilian captive in the city.

"The palm tree was over here, and they went and ripped it out," the mother cries. "My beloved Mohammad, where have you gone, my dear? I've come for you, my dear."

Anas Baba reported from Khan Younis. Daniel Estrin reported from Tel Aviv. Abu Bakr Bashir contributed reporting from London. Jawad Rizkallah contributed to this story from Beirut.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anas Baba
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.