Unimaginable devastation seen inside Khan Younis, the southern Gaza city once a safe haven for the displaced

Khan Younis

Scattered around a huge crater lie the remains of a life that has passed. Random items of clothing and a red makeup bag lie in the mud. Nearby, an English textbook, broken pieces of furniture and a cushion with floral embroidery lie in one large pile.

The crater is located right in the middle of a residential area in the center of Khan Younis, the besieged city in southern Gaza and the current epicenter of the war between Israel and Hamas.

The city is the birthplace of Hamas Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar and, according to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), a major Hamas stronghold. It is also an area to which the Israeli military urged large numbers of civilians to flee in the early days of the war, when northern Gaza was the focus of Israeli operations.

Looking around, it is clear that the IDF invaded Khan Younis in full force.

According to the IDF, the crater is all that remains of a building similar to others in the area. The military said it was razed because it sat atop an entrance to a massive underground tunnel complex.

The IDF says the complex has been used by Sinwar and other Hamas officials to hide since the start of the war and that some of the hostages kidnapped by Hamas from Israel on October 7 were being held there. It is not clear for how long.

CNN was among a small group of reporters given a military escort by the Israeli army to view the tunnels. As a condition of entering Gaza under IDF escort, news media must submit photographs and unedited video footage to the Israeli military for review before publication. The IDF did not review this written report.

Because they were accompanied by the IDF, the journalists could only see what they could see.

Yet the devastation witnessed by CNN in Gaza was beyond imagination.

Driving from the border fence into the heart of Khan Younis in a military vehicle provided a limited vantage point, but there did not appear to be a single building untouched by the war.

Many buildings have been completely destroyed and the rubble has been rolled away. Those left standing appear damaged without any chance of repair. Some resemble the ruins of medieval castles: lonely walls with holes where windows used to be.

The extent of the bulldozing becomes clear as you drive through it. In some areas, the roads are lined with piles of rubble so high that the military vehicle is completely enclosed and traveling below ‘street level’.

An aerial view of Khan Younis, Gaza, on November 30, 2023.
An aerial view of Khan Younis, Gaza, on January 19, 2024.

Aerial photographs of Khan Younis, Gaza, on November 30, 2023 and January 19, 2024.

Early in the war, the Israeli army designated Khan Younis as a safer zone and ordered residents from northern Gaza to seek shelter there. But as the IDF moved south, the city became the next point of focus. The IDF says Khan Younis is a Hamas stronghold, adding that the tunnel network under civilian buildings in the city was likely the site from which Hamas planned the October 7 attacks.

Hamas has denied hiding in hospitals and other civilian structures and CNN could not independently verify either claim.

Local journalists told CNN that there were as many as 100,000 displaced people in United Nations-run shelters and other facilities in the area before the IDF issued evacuation orders last month.

With nowhere else to go, many continued to take shelter in medical centers and UN facilities in Khan Younis, including the Nasser Medical Complex, Al Amal Hospital and the headquarters of the Palestinian Red Crescent. The UN estimates there are still thousands, and those facilities have also been attacked, according to Hamas-led Palestinian health officials.

A building in Khan Younis that stands next to an entrance to a tunnel complex.

The IDF has repeatedly said it aims to minimize harm to civilians, but is under pressure from the United States and others to do more.

Brig. General Dan Goldfuss is the commander of the IDF’s 98th Division, the unit leading the offensive in Khan Younis. He accompanied the small group of reporters, including CNN, on a tour of two Hamas tunnel complexes in the area.

Standing in the massive crater in Khan Younis on Sunday, Goldfuss admitted the destruction was significant. But he blamed Hamas.

Goldfuss said the tunnel network was used by the Hamas leadership to plan the attacks in which Hamas and Islamic Jihad killed more than 1,200 people and abducted more than 250 others to Gaza. Some hostages are likely still being held in the tunnels, he said.

“I’ve been asked a lot of questions about the price that Gaza, Khan Younis is paying, the houses… yes, certainly, a price has been paid,” Goldfuss said.

‘But look around you. We are in a normal neighborhood and every place you can find there is a shaft. There is a shaft in the kindergarten, there is a shaft in the school, there is a shaft in the mosques, there is a shaft in the supermarket, everywhere you go, he said.

CNN cannot verify Goldfuss’ claims because Israel does not allow journalists to travel to Gaza independently. However, the tunnel complex that CNN visited on Sunday was located beneath a residential area.

Even this limited view of Gaza makes it clear that four months of Israeli military operations have completely transformed the enclave.

Seen from above, Gaza used to be green and gray: large areas of fields interspersed with densely populated cities. Satellite images now show a country that is largely brown, bombed and bulldozed.

Israeli soldiers patrol the area around an entrance to the tunnel network under Khan Younis in southern Gaza on Sunday, February 4.

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