‘It smells like death’: Palestinians return to the ruins of Khan Yunis

Palestinian civilians returned to the rubble of their homes in the southern city of Khan Yunis on Monday after the sudden withdrawal of Israeli troops to find little left standing and corpses rotting in the ruins.

“It smells like death,” Maha Thaer, a mother of four, told news agency AFP. “We don’t have a city anymore — only rubble. There is absolutely nothing left.

“All the streets have been bulldozed. And the smell… I watched people digging and bringing out the bodies.”

Aerial photography from Gaza’s second city, which had a pre-war population of about 400,000 according to census data, showed few buildings untouched by destruction after months of bombardment by Israeli forces.

Ambulance crews recovered 56 bodies in Khan Yunis on Monday, Al Jazeera reported, citing local medics. Some families held simple memorial services.

The Palestinian Red Crescent Society emergency service posted photos of the wreckage of al-Amal hospital and reported on “the destruction of medical equipment, nursing rooms, intensive care units… the emergency operations room, and ambulances”.

But families were flooding back to the city in their thousands, local sources told i, undeterred by the destruction.

Ruwaida Amer, a journalist from the city who stayed through evacuation orders, said she was pleased that many of her neighbours were returning but saddened that many have nothing to return to.

“My aunt lost her home completely, her area was completely destroyed, but they will return to the area,” she said. “Many people think about putting a tent on the rubble of their house. She will do that also.”

Khalil Abu Shammala, a media consultant whose family home is in Khan Yunis, suggested that the city and its surroundings had endured the worst devastation of anywhere in Gaza.

“Khan Yunis might be the [site of the] most massive destruction of the last six months,” he said. “There is no infrastructure, there are no possibilities for living whether in Khan Yunis refugee camp, in Khan Yunis city, or east of Khan Yunis.”

Not a single home in the refugee camp had escaped “partial or complete” destruction, said Mr Abu Shammala.

In some areas, returning residents said they could not find even a trace of their houses.

But the city’s inhabitants were determined to return home.

“I saw so many people and so many cars go from Rafah to Khan Yunis,” he said. “So many people go to see if their house is still standing. Others go to set some of their goods. I am not sure if they will stay there or go back to the tents [in refugee camps].”

Several aid groups are reportedly operating in the city although it is unclear if they are equipped to meet the sharp increase in demand.

A representative of one group told i they had been unable to establish contact with their team on the group due to communication blackouts.

Israel said it had fired on a site close to an aid distribution centre yesterday on Monday, claiming to be targetting Hamas rocket launchers.