Palestinians returned to the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis to find their homes reduced to ruins by months of Israeli bombardment. Most Israeli troops have withdrawn from the city.

Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant stated that the troop withdrawal is not a sign of peace but rather a strategic manoeuvre to prepare for future operations, particularly in the southern city of Rafah.

The sudden withdrawal of Israel’s 98th division from southern Gaza comes after six months of relentless attacks on Gaza. The unexpected move has fuelled speculation about Israel’s intentions.

According to the latest figures, at least 33,175 Palestinians have been killed and 75,886 wounded in Israeli attacks on Gaza since 7 October.

Amidst the wreckage of shattered buildings and debris-filled streets, scenes captured by Associated Press video depict a city scarred by months of Israeli air and ground attacks. The main hospital, Nasser, stands severely damaged.

Mahmoud Abdel-Ghani, a resident who fled during the invasion, described the city centre as uninhabitable due to extensive destruction. The returning residents navigate the rubble, some carrying belongings or cycling on ruined roads.

Before 7 October, nearly 400,000 people lived in Khan Younis and its surrounding areas. However, extensive Israeli bombardment has left much of the area in ruins.

Despite claims of progress in targeting Hamas officials and infrastructure, the decision to pull back from southern Gaza has raised eyebrows among far-right members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition and newspaper commentators.

Scepticism abounds among Israeli commentators, who note the lack of evidence for preparations for a Rafah offensive or evacuation plans for the city’s residents. Despite Israel’s communication with the Biden administration regarding plans to relocate Rafah residents to tent cities, no concrete steps have been taken to facilitate such a move.

Critics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested that it may be part of a broader strategy to prolong the conflict at a lower intensity for political gain.

Criticism of the withdrawal has been particularly vocal among far-right Israeli officials, including National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who view it as a potential concession to Hamas.

Amidst these interpretations, Hamas officials and Egyptian sources have provided contradictory accounts of progress in ceasefire negotiations.