Gazans pay a heavy price for the 'dream of going home' to Khan Younis

Many Palestinians are making perilous journeys, braving the Israeli bombardment to check on their homes

Displaced Palestinians in an agricultural tent in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Wednesday. AFP
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In the early hours of December 17, Mohammed Awwad stealthily set off for a journey that would typically have taken him a few minutes by car to reach his family’s home in Khan Younis, from the city’s perimeter where he’s now displaced because of the war in Gaza.

Several hours later, and many bullets, bombs and horrors on the way, he returned to his family in Al-Mawasi, in Gaza’s west, with wounds he’d sustained, and the body of his older brother, Saeed, who had joined him on his trip, but did not survive the Israeli fire.

“We just wanted to check on our home,” the 32-year-old and father of three told The National.

Longing to be back, some Palestinians are attempting the dangerous return to Khan Younis.

“We were struck by a missile. My brother was killed, and so were others. I was injured and I saw the bodies of two other people,” Mr Awwad said.

Since October 7, more than 20,000 Palestinians have been killed – mostly women and children, and more than 50,000 injured, according to the ministry of health in Gaza.

Israeli bombing of the strip has been relentless for more than 10 weeks, and no area in the small enclave is spared from devastation.

Residents in Gaza told The National on Thursday that Israel has been heavily bombing the area around the Kuwaiti Hospital in Rafah, in southern Gaza, reportedly targeting a school near by being used as a shelter.

"Only in Gaza and only Israeli crimes have no limits," a resident said.

"Losing a loved one is very difficult" the Gazan man continued, in reference to his friends who were killed in an Israeli strike on a home on Wednesday, which killed more than 100 people.

About 1.9 million Gazans have been internally displaced, nearly 85 per cent of the population.

Gaza death toll moves past 20,000 as Israel pushes south

Gaza death toll moves past 20,000 as Israel pushes south

On Wednesday, the United Nations said that Israel had issued evacuation orders for large areas of Khan Younis, where more than 140,000 displaced people were sheltering.

The Awwads were forced to leave their home in Khan Younis in early December after Israel directed its arms at the city it once ordered Gazans to flee to.

“I left with Saeed and others in the early morning and snuck into the occupied area in central Khan Younis,” Mohamed said.

As they made the five-kilometre trip by foot, the brothers walked for hours, avoiding the main roads, and passing through fields between side roads.

When they reached their destination, Mohamed could barely recognise the area he grew up in. Roads had been bulldozed and buildings were flattened as shelling continued, tanks occupied the streets and snipers were positioned on rooftops, he said.

“When we reached the area, others like us were also there to check on their homes. The Israeli army started shooting at us and we hid behind trees and among the rubble.

“Never again will I go there,” the young man said.

Saeed's father is grieving the loss of his son. "Why did they kill my son?" he said. "Is checking on our home a reason to kill him? How is it possible to pay with our lives the price of our longing for our homes?” he said.

The dream of going home

The killing, mass displacement of Palestinians and the large-scale destruction of their homes drew comparisons with the Nakba tolls of 1948, when Israel was established as a state, and thousands of Palestinians were killed and many more were forced out of their homes, and have not returned since.

Rachid Abdel-Qader, 65, lost his son, 20, and his nephew, 18, a week ago when the two young men also braved the journey back to northern Khan Younis to check on their homes. They were shot and killed by the Israeli army on their way to Al-Sater Al-Sharqi region.

“They died trying to get there after the Israeli army shot and killed them instantly,” Mr Abdel-Qader said.

“I was against them taking this trip. But other members of the family said that it was necessary to check on our homes because we were told that they were damaged by the shelling,” he said.

Displaced Palestinians are living in extremely harsh conditions, with overcrowding creating a deteriorating humanitarian crisis.

For us the displaced, going back home is a dream
Rachid Abdel-Qader, displaced Gazan

Human Rights Watch has accused the Israeli government of “deliberately blocking the delivery of water, food and fuel,” and “wilfully impeding humanitarian assistance”.

“We are suffering each moment we are displaced. There is no place to sleep, shower, or go to the toilet. We do not have the most basic needs for human life. Everyone is in a state of deep and unprecedented longing to spend even one hour in their home,” Mr Abdel-Qader said.

“For us the displaced, going back home is a dream.”

While some of the internally displaced Gazans from Khan Younis have braved the journeys back, those who were displaced from the north have lost all hope of returning or even checking on their homes. The area continues to be under heavy Israeli strikes from air, land and sea.

Ahmed Ibrahim, 34, has been displaced twice since he left his home in Gaza city two months ago and is now staying in a makeshift tent in western Khan Younis.

“Some relatives who are still there told me our home was heavily damaged,” the father of three said.

"The only wish for each displaced Palestinian is to return to their home, no matter what. My children draw their rooms on paper and build a replica of our home using bricks. The most difficult part is appeasing their longing,” he said.

This article was published in collaboration with Egab.

Updated: December 21, 2023, 11:23 AM