Khan Younis ‘bulldozed into oblivion’

Alaa Al-Mashharawi, Monday 29 Apr 2024

Standing amid the rubble of their homes after the Israeli assault against them, residents of Khan Younis describe their devastation to Alaa Al-Mashharawi.

Khan Younis  bulldozed into oblivion

 

Two hundred days into the Israeli war on Gaza, the conflict is taking another turn: either the Israeli government agrees to a truce and prisoner-swap deal, or its army continues its aggression and invades Rafah after its withdrawal from the devastated city of Khan Younis in southern Gaza and the invasion of the Al-Nuseirat Refugee Camp.

The issue of the return of the displaced to Gaza and the north of the Strip remains one demand that the negotiators in Cairo cannot achieve. The Israeli army is adamant on not allowing the displaced to return due to its failure to achieve any strategic success in Gaza.

Returning to Gaza City in the north of the Strip is a dream for hundreds of thousands of Gaza residents, who took the coastal road back towards the north after hearing news that several people were able to cross a closed checkpoint towards Gaza City. The Israeli army denied the reports circulating about allowing a return to the north, saying that it remains a “war zone.”

It also denied that it was allowing women, children, and men over the age of 50 to move to the north of the Strip. On the roads, mothers were seen with their children and families with their belongings in donkey-drawn carts making their way from the south towards the north of the Strip.

Political analyst Nidal Khadra told Al-Ahram Weekly that Hamas is insisting on the return of the displaced to Gaza City and the north of the Strip in the negotiations with Israel. For Hamas, this is a fundamental condition, because it stops the Israeli plans for the Palestinians’ displacement and deportation and prevents Israel from dividing the Gaza Strip, he said.

The Israeli army perceives the presence of hundreds of thousands of displaced people outside Gaza City and the northern region as putting it under enormous pressure, which inevitably also affects Hamas. This pressure is intended to compel Hamas to comply with Israel’s conditions in the prisoner-swap deal with minimal concessions, Khadra explained.

Political analyst Alon Ben-David told the Israeli media that Hamas has pushed for discussions on the return of the displaced to northern Gaza, whereas Israel intends to address this as a final item in the negotiations.

Ben-David said Israel’s acceptance of the Gazans’ return to the north of the Strip would limit its army’s mobility and potentially lead to significant battles if it were to undertake any future operations in the region.

“It is evident to everyone that the price of the swap deal will be exorbitant,” he said.

The city of Khan Younis, which has been under Israeli occupation, witnessed a rush of thousands of people returning to their homes immediately after the Israeli army announced its withdrawal.

They were shocked by the destruction caused by the invading forces, with eyewitnesses saying that the Israeli army had rendered the city uninhabitable. Civil defence and ambulance crews accompanied residents as they uncovered dozens of bodies from beneath the rubble.

Israel’s systematic destruction of Khan Younis included a relentless barrage of artillery shelling and air strikes against vital institutions. Manual demolition operations were also conducted, in which Israeli soldiers booby-trapped buildings in the vicinity of the Nasser Hospital.

Once bustling with life and activity, Khan Younis was previously densely populated and was known for the shops and bakeries, mosques, and football pitches lining its streets. It now lies in ruins, transformed into vast expanses of rubble and devastation as depicted in satellite images.

With the withdrawal of the Israeli 98th Division comprising three brigades, the city has been left to cope with the aftermath of the destruction. The Nahal Brigade remains, operating in the Netzarim Corridor that divides the north and south of the Gaza Strip.

The impact of the assault on Khan Younis has been harrowing. Most homes in the area have been subjected to destruction, with some reduced to rubble and others left structurally compromised by severe cracks, rendering them vulnerable to collapse at any moment.

Many residents who returned to Khan Younis expressed their determination not to abandon the ruins of their homes. However, others voiced their intention to relocate to Rafah due to the daunting conditions in the devastated city. With their homes rendered uninhabitable by the destruction, they sought refuge with relatives, despite the perilous journey fraught with risks.

After enduring four months of relentless aggression, Khan Younis continues to grapple with immense challenges. The absence of international humanitarian organisations, particularly the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, exacerbates the plight of residents. UNRWA’s operations have been redirected to Rafah.

A video clip circulated on social media sparked outrage among Israelis. It depicts municipal workers in Khan Younis restoring water connections for returning residents following the Israeli withdrawal. Meanwhile, Israeli settlement residents have been unable to return to their homes for six months.

Following an assessment mission in Khan Younis, a UN delegation reported extensive destruction in the city, which Israeli forces vacated on Saturday.

The delegation, which surveyed a UN warehouse, four medical centres, and eight schools, verified severe damage to these structures. Paved roads had been turned into dirt paths, it said. Spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric said streets and public areas in Khan Younis were littered with unexploded ordnance, posing grave danger, especially to children.

During their investigation, the team discovered unexploded bombs weighing 454 kg at major intersections and inside schools. Dujarric said that Jamie McGoldrick, acting humanitarian coordinator in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, was present in Khan Younis.

He had visited an UNRWA school, which currently accommodates thousands of displaced people. Palestinians in the school require urgent provisions, support, food, and water, as well as health and sanitation services, Dujarric said.

Since the Israeli Occupation Forces withdrew several days ago, municipal crews in Khan Younis have been working tirelessly to clear roads, streets, and debris, in the hope of restoring life to the city.

Despite no official announcement from the occupation regarding the Palestinians’ return to their homes, residents ventured back to Al-Mawasi and Rafah, ending their arduous journey, especially with the looming threat of a potential invasion of Rafah.

Municipal teams have started the restoration of water networks across Khan Younis to facilitate the residents’ return to their homes, despite the extensive destruction inflicted by the Occupation Forces.

On witnessing the devastation of his home in the western camp of Khan Younis, resident Haitham Abu Akar, said that “the western camp resembles a site struck by an earthquake. The occupation has deliberately killed everything, as if it were intent on punishing people, trees, and even rocks.”

He expressed his pain at seeing his lifelong dream of building a home come crashing down in moments due to his displacement from Khan Younis to Rafah driven by the imperative of safeguarding his family’s lives amid the escalating violence.

“As I journeyed back from Rafah to Khan Younis, I held onto the hope of returning to my home and resuming my life. However, I found devastation beyond my imagination. Even my computer, which held my doctoral thesis, the culmination of years of work, had been reduced to rubble, shattering my aspirations,” Abu Akar said.

“It appears that all hope has been extinguished in the city, and I must reluctantly return to Rafah, bracing myself for the grim reality awaiting us amid Israeli threats to raze the city, just like the fate of the rest of the Gaza Strip.”

Attempting to find solace, Abu Akar tried sleeping in a tent above his demolished home, but to no avail. The city, stripped of life and basic necessities including drinking water, rendered any semblance of normality impossible after the occupation’s relentless destruction.

Khan Younis now stands as the most devastated city in the Gaza Strip. Satellite imagery analysed by experts reveals approximately 45,000 buildings were either destroyed or severely damaged by the Israeli Occupation Forces.

In tears, resident Samah Qudeih told the Weekly that “we have lost everything, our home painstakingly built by my mother and me after my father’s passing, now reduced to rubble. We have found ourselves on the streets, our clothes torn, with nothing left. We have no choice but to return to Rafah.”

As she sifted through the debris, she described her heart aching for even the smallest trace of her past life, hoping to salvage something besides her sneakers amid the destruction.

“How will we rebuild our lives? Where will we find shelter, food, and clothing? Life is so cruel,” she said. “My neighbourhood lies in ruins. Buildings and trees have been obliterated and streets bulldozed into oblivion. It’s a ghost town devoid of life.”

Qudeih said she would return to her damaged home because it was better than living in a tent. She empathised with her neighbours who have also found their homes completely destroyed and have no place to go.

During Israel’s brutal war on the Gaza Strip, it has perpetrated a litany of war crimes, among the most egregious being the killing of Palestinians in cold blood. Evidence of these atrocities can be found in the discovery of mass graves across the areas Israel invaded and occupied for extended periods.

Khan Younis stands out as a glaring example of these crimes, with approximately 500 people reported missing in the aftermath of one massacre. Around 2,000 people disappeared following the withdrawal of the Israeli Occupation Forces from various areas in the Gaza Strip.

A mass grave found in the Nasser Medical Complex contains the bodies of numerous people of varying ages, all brutally executed and interred with Israeli military bulldozers in the compound’s grounds.

Ismail Al-Thawabta, director-general of the Government Media Office in Gaza, reported finding bodies without heads, skin, and even organs.

“We have uncovered two mass graves in the Nasser Medical Complex, and we anticipate that there may be more,” he said. “The Occupation Forces ruthlessly executed numerous displaced people, wounded, sick, and even medical personnel. We urgently call for an international investigation to ascertain the circumstances leading to the disappearance and decomposition of some of the deceased.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has reported the discovery of a mass grave in the Al-Shifa Hospital containing the remains of 179 people. The hospital courtyards, now transformed into a makeshift cemetery, held the bodies of many premature and ailing children who perished due to prolonged power outages and fuel shortages.

Palestinian Civil Defence personnel in Gaza reported that the bodies, in an advanced state of decay, exhibited signs of torture, detention, and mistreatment. They had been stripped of their clothing, some blindfolded and bound hand and foot before being interred. Most had decomposed within the confines of the medical facility’s grounds.

Salah Abdel-Ati, head of the Hashd Foundation for Human Rights, a NGO, said that “the mass graves that have been uncovered serve as evidence of the magnitude of the crimes committed by the Israeli army and raise alarming questions about the fate of thousands of Palestinians still missing following the withdrawal of the Israeli forces from Gaza.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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