POLITICS

In Israel’s call for mass evacuation, Palestinians hear echoes of their original catastrophic exodus

Oct 13, 2023, 11:36 AM

Palestinians leave their houses following Israeli airstrikes in Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza S...

Palestinians leave their houses following Israeli airstrikes in Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

JERUSALEM (AP) — In Israel’s call for the evacuation of half of Gaza’s population, many Palestinians fear a repeat of the most traumatic event in their tortured history, their mass exodus from what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding its creation.

Palestinians refer to it as the Nakba, or “catastrophe.” An estimated 700,000 Palestinians, a majority of the prewar population, fled or were expelled from what is now Israel in the months before and during the war, in which Jewish fighters fended off an attack by several Arab states.

The Palestinians packed their belongings, piling into cars, trucks and donkey carts. Many locked their doors and took their keys with them, expecting to return when the war ended.

Seventy-five years later, they have not been allowed back. Emptied towns were renamed, villages were demolished, homes reclaimed by forests in Israeli nature reserves.

Israel refused to allow the Palestinians to return, because it would threaten the Jewish majority within the country’s borders. So the refugees and their descendants, who now number nearly 6 million, settled in camps in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Those camps eventually grew into built-up neighborhoods.

In Gaza, the vast majority of the population are Palestinian refugees, many of whose relatives fled from the same areas that Hamas attacked last weekend.

The Palestinians insist they have the right to return, something Israel still adamantly rejects. Their fate was among the thorniest issues in the peace process, which ground to a halt more than a decade ago.

Now, Palestinians fear the most painful moment from their history is repeating itself.

“You look at those pictures of people without cars, on donkeys, hungry and barefoot, getting out any way they can to go to the south,” said political analyst Talal Awkal, who has decided to stay in Gaza City because he doesn’t think the south will be any safer.

“It is a catastrophe for Palestinians, it is a Nakba,” he said. “They are displacing an entire population from its homeland.”

Israel has vowed to crush Hamas after its bloody Oct. 7 incursion. Militants killed over 1,300 Israelis, many in brutal fashion, and captured around 150 — including soldiers and civilians, young and old. Israel has launched blistering waves of airstrikes on Gaza in response that have already killed over 1,500 Palestinians, and the war appears set to escalate further.

On Friday, Israel called on all Palestinians living in northern Gaza, including Gaza City, to head south. The evacuation orders apply to more than a million people, about half the population of the narrow, 40-kilometer (25-mile) coastal strip.

With Israel having sealed Gaza’s borders, the only direction to flee is south, toward Egypt. But Israel is still carrying out airstrikes across the Gaza, and Egypt has rushed to secure its border against any mass influx of Palestinians. It too, fears another Nakba.

Israeli officials say the evacuation is aimed at sparing civilians and denying Hamas the ability to use them as human shields.

“The camouflage of the terrorists is the civil population,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Friday. “We need to separate them. So those who want to save their life, please go south.”

The military has said those who leave can return when hostilities end, but many Palestinians are deeply suspicious.

Israel’s far-right government has empowered extremists who support the idea of deporting Palestinians, and in the wake of the Hamas attack some have openly called for mass expulsion. Some are West Bank settlers still angry over Israel’s unilateral pullout from Gaza in 2005.

“Right now, one goal: Nakba! A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 48. Nakba in Gaza and Nakba to anyone who dares to join!” Ariel Kallner, a member of parliament from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, wrote on social media after the Hamas attack.

Hamas, meanwhile, has told people to remain in their homes, dismissing the Israeli orders as a ploy.

President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the internationally-recognized Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank, also rejected the evacuation orders, saying they would lead to a “new Nakba.”

Abbas, 87, is a refugee from Safed, in what is now northern Israel. He wore a key-shaped lapel pin when he addressed the United Nations last month, noting the 75th anniversary of the Nakba.

Palestinians have heard their relatives’ stories, and have been raised on the idea that the only hope for their decades-long struggle for self-determination is steadfastness on the land.

But many in Gaza may be too frightened, exhausted and desperate to make a stand.

For nearly a week, they have been seeking safety under a barrage of Israeli airstrikes that have demolished entire city blocks, sometimes hitting without warning. There’s a territory-wide electricity blackout and dwindling supplies of food, fuel and medicine.

The south isn’t safe, but if Israel launches a ground offensive in the north, as seems increasingly likely, it might be their best hope for survival, even if they never return.

“The experience that happened with our families in 1948 taught us that if you leave, you will not return,” said Khader Dibs, who lives in the crowded Shuafat refugee camp on the outskirts of Jerusalem. “The Palestinian people are dying and the Gaza Strip is being wiped out.”

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Associated Press reporters Isabel DeBre and Julia Frankel contributed.

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In Israel’s call for mass evacuation, Palestinians hear echoes of their original catastrophic exodus