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Palestinians return to destruction in Gaza's second largest city, Khan Younis


The longest ground battle of the Gaza war is over. Israeli troops withdrew yesterday from Khan Younis after battling Hamas for four months. Palestinians who fled are returning to a destroyed city. NPR producer Anas Baba visited today. Here's his reporting with NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv.

ANAS BABA, BYLINE: I'm in what we call the center of Khan Younis city. It's totally unrecognizable.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: That's NPR producer Anas Baba in Khan Younis, Gaza's second-largest city.

BABA: The only thing that I'm seeing at the moment is buildings, all of them on the ground. There is some buildings that are still standing, but the problem that those buildings are totally without any walls, only the cement structure.

ESTRIN: He finds Umm Ahmad Il-Sibaee standing silently with her purse in an entire neighborhood of rubble, grey hills of cement where her neighbors' homes used to be. Her building is one of the few left standing.

UM AHMAD IL-SIBAEE: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: She says, how can I tell you my feelings? I cannot express to you my feelings - and begins to cry. With the withdrawal from Khan Younis, Israel has removed most of its ground troops from Gaza. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant says Israel has dismantled Hamas as a functioning military unit in the area. Israeli military reporters say the troop withdrawal will allow civilians to return, but most have nowhere to move back to. A Khan Younis municipality spokesman tells NPR over 80% of the city's buildings are believed to be destroyed and the rest mostly uninhabitable. Many who came to the city just salvaged furniture from their homes and drove them back to their tents. A group of men who came back say the destruction reminds them of the wars in Syria and Ukraine.

SAMI IRBAYA: (Chanting in non-English language).

ESTRIN: One man, Sami Irbaya, chants an improvised lament.

BABA: He's just, like, pushing his bicycle next to himself. And he was singing. that everything is totally changed here. Nothing is still the same. And Hamas is the one to blame.

IRBAYA: (Chanting in non-English language).

ESTRIN: Chanting against Hamas in the home city of Hamas leader Yahia Sinwar, who launched the October 7 attack on Israel that sparked this war.

UMM MOHAMMED KANNITA: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: A mother, Umm Mohammed Kannita, stood in the courtyard of the city's emptied hospital, digging in the sand, looking for the body of her 17-year-old son, Mohammed.

BABA: And she keeps crying and saying the same thing. Why did they took my child away?

KANNITA: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: She'd been sheltering in the courtyard of the hospital with her family at the beginning of the battle. Her son was shot and killed on the hospital grounds. She buried him between a palm tree and an olive tree and fled. She's back now to find all the trees uprooted. She fears her son's body was dug up. Israeli troops have dug up fresh graves looking for the remains of Israeli captives.

BABA: She came back at the first moment today to search for the body of her son, but she couldn't find it. She's still trying to find it everywhere.

ESTRIN: Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv, with Anas Baba in Khan Younis, Gaza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.

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