Published On: Sun, Oct 22nd, 2023

Why Palestinians fear that if they leave northern Gaza they may never be able to return

Israelis see this time period differently. After the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of Jews sought refuge in the newly created State of Israel for their own safety. Jews had also been emigrating to Ottoman and then British-ruled Palestine for decades.

The Israeli government has said it does not intend to occupy the Gaza strip or permanently expel Palestinians. On Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken added that the Israelis have “absolutely no intent, no desire, to be running Gaza themselves” on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” 

But some far-right members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party support the idea of expellingPalestinians. Hours after the Oct. 7 terrorist attack, Knesset member Ariel Kallner posted a call on social media for another nakba. “Right now, one goal: Nakba! A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 48,” he wrote. “Nakba in Gaza and Nakba to anyone who dares to join!” 

As the conflict enters its third week, nearly a million Palestinians in Gaza have been displaced since Israel began conducting retaliatory airstrikes, the United Nations said on Saturday. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza, 4,651 Palestinians, including 1,873 children, have been killed in Gaza.

Stories of the Nakba have been passed down by Palestinians from generation to generation. 

“This is a sort of a collective traumatic event in the minds of most Palestinians,” said Rashid Khalidi, a historian and the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University. “Back in 1948, the majority of the Arab population of Palestine was actually driven from their homes, and these are things that people remember hearing from their grandparents and their parents.”

Some Israelis have acknowledged that the Nakba occurred, according to Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney who supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “For years, Israelis were in denial about the existence of the Nakba. It’s our original sin,” said Seidemann. The Israeli right flatly rejects that view.

Palestinian refugees from Israel form a queue by the food tent in their camp in Amman, Jordan in 1955.
Palestinian refugees form a queue by the food tent in their camp in Amman, Jordan in 1955.Three Lions / Getty Images


Amjad Shabat, a Gaza City resident, hesitated when she heard about the evacuation order calling for the equivalent of 1.1 million people to flee to the south. She did not want to leave the home she shared with her husband and 2-year-old daughter. Many of Gaza’s current residents are descendants of Palestinians who fled their homes in 1948. 

“This number is higher than the number of people that were uprooted from their villages and their cities during the Nakba,” Shabat, a Palestinian writer, said. “This is horrifying.” Now that Shabat has fled to southern Gaza, she is unsure whether she will have a home to return to when hostilities subside. 

In the West Bank, which is occupied by Israel and administered in part by the Palestinian Authority, fear of being displaced has been handed down through generations. Diana Buttu, a Palestinian writer, lawyer and Stanford graduate who served as a spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 2000s, remembers hearing stories from her father, who was nine years old during the Nakba.

“And here I am today, a mother, and my son is 9 — same age as my father was,” said Buttu, who lives in Ramallah, one of the largest cities in the West Bank.“And I feel what my grandmother was talking about, and the decision that she had to make in 1948.”

Motivated by reports of violence near their village, al-Mujaydal, Buttu’s grandparents fled to the city of Nazareth. What they believed would be a short stay turned into permanent exile. 

“And this is what it feels like for people in Gaza now,” Buttu said. “Some of them are saying, ‘Well, it’s only going to be for a couple of weeks.’ Some of them are saying ‘Well, we have to go somewhere.’”

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