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Gaza Palestinians Flee for Their Lives, But There’s Nowhere To Run

On Tuesday, Mohammed Abdallah was taking care of his wheelchair-bound mother in the dark. Constant Israeli air strikes regularly shook her Gaza city apartment building. He was in mourning for four cousins killed by Israeli bombs that flattened a market in the Jabalia Refugee camp earlier. Out of power and out of water with fuel in short supply since Israel cut off Gaza’s access, his mother and him were stuck on the fifth floor with no easy way out. On Friday morning, as Israeli officials ordered 1.1 million Palestinians to flee northern Gaza, Abdallah, 36, and a neighbor carried his mother and then her wheelchair down the stairs and into emptying streets to try and flee for their lives.

“I don’t know where to go,” he says on the phone, standing in the street with no car and no one able to take them south.

Launching its most punishing assault in its six attacks on the 16-year blockaded coastal strip, Israel dropped 6,000 bombs on Gaza this week. The Israeli military has told half of Gaza’s residents to relocate amidst an ongoing assault that is flattening neighborhoods and ground incursions that people fear are the precursor to a full-scale invasion. More than 2,000 Palestinians and 1,300 Israelis have been killed since bloody fighting erupted last Saturday. That’s when a multi-pronged surprise attack led by Hamas massacred hundreds of Israeli civilians and kidnapped an estimated 100 more.

Mohammad Rajoub, 40, spent Tuesday at home taking in his extended family who fled Israeli airstrikes in central Gaza. He did this while trying to pump out a storm flood from his living room and keeping an eye on his kids as loud blasts from exploding Israeli shells echoed through the streets. On Thursday, he was at a funeral for a cousin killed in central Gaza by Israeli bombing that morning.

At the beginning of Israel’s ground invasion during 2014, Rajoub stood next to me on a street outside eastern Gaza’s Al Shujaya neighborhood after it withstood a night of intense shelling. We watched as fathers with kids on their shoulders and mothers carrying belongings in plastic bags as they stumbled away from the shattered buildings and carnage on the road to Al Shifa Hospital, where they hoped to find some refuge in a tent city. A family staggers past, terrified. “It’s like a modern Nakba,” he said, using the Arabic term for catastrophe that refers to Israel’s displacement of at least 750,000 Palestinians during the 1948 war, a moment that defines the collective Palestinian experience, especially in Gaza, where 75 percent of the population are registered refugees and their descendants.

GRAPHICS - 13 October 2023, Palestinian Territories, Rafah: Palestinians search for survivors following an Israeli bombing in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip as fighting between Israeli troops and Islamist Hamas terrorists continues. Photo by: Abed Rahim Khatib/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Palestinians search for survivors following an Israeli bombing in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip as fighting between Israeli troops and Islamist Hamas terrorists continues.

A man who loves cars, Rajoub spent the 2014 war piling flack jacketed journalists into his black Nissan and driving at breakneck speeds behind ambulances towards bombed homes. As this war set in, he just wanted to be out driving. But, amidst unprecedented bombardment, devastation and denial of basic resources, he had resigned himself to dying at home.

By Friday morning, his resignation to dying at home had changed. After a call about Israel’s threat from a colleague, he was packing his family into his car and doing something he had been able to avoid during all the past Gaza wars, leaving everything to save his family and run for his life. “I’m leaving, we’ve got no choice,” he said over the phone in a panicked voice. After that his phone was dead.

While panic and the fear of a historic expulsion permeates Gaza, Palestinians in the West Bank are watching in horror amidst stringent lockdown conditions, escalating army raids, and settler attacks. Their question: how will they come for us next?

Friday was supposed to be a Day of Rage with mass protest in solidarity with Gaza, but as the death toll steeply climbed amidst Israeli relocation orders that the UN has begged Israel to rescind and say can’t be accomplished, for Palestinians, it was more a day of shock. Under a massive security presence in Jerusalem’s old city, few worshipers were around in the tense quiet. Men under 60 were barred from praying at Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam and an icon of the Palestinian national struggle, while Israeli police blocked worshipers and clashed with Palestinian residents in occupied Eastern  neighborhoods that Palestinians hope will someday be part of their capital city. Rather than flood the ramparts of the Damascus Gate, many people stuck to their screens or desperately trying to reach friends or family in Gaza.

Young Palestinians took their anger in the form of broken rocks to be hurled at Israeli checkpoints and there were marches in major West Bank cities. Israeli soldiers responded with live fire and killed 11 Palestinians. However, while there was a rash of armed attacks on settlements and soldiers where firefights and ambushes by new Palestinian guerilla groups carried a message of rage, many stayed indoors. Shuttering their businesses in protest, they were also consumed and stunned by watching their people forced from their homes, feeling like they were watching the cruel indifference of history repeating on HD screens.

At home in Ramallah under a strict lockdown that has frozen Palestinians in place, blocking them from traveling through checkpoints in occupied West Bank towns, Hanan Ashrawi, a leading Palestinian national activist and intellectual, is clear about the historic moment Palestinians are being forced to relive.

“Whole families are being eradicated  [by bombing] as well as what they call “evacuations,” which are expulsions,” says the 77-year-old who was a leader in the Palestine Liberation Organization but resigned in protest in 2020. “These combinations are the horror of the Nakba to Palestinans.”

Ashrawi’s roots are in the 1987 popular uprising known as The First Intifada, and has long struggled to get the world to address the costs of Palestinian oppression and dispossession. Today, however, she just sees dramatic escalations of violence unabated. “Everybody’s seeing it and nobody’s stopping it,” she says about the images coming out of Gaza. “The world is giving Israel a free pass.”

Ashrawi says that these fears of a new Nakba didn’t just start on Friday or with Israel’s decision to flatten the strip in retaliation. Rather, she points to the government, Israel’s most right-wing in history. As settlers escalated attacks over the last year and the army increased its West Bank raids, the calls for annexation and seizing more Palestinian land have intensified.

With Settler Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich calling to wipe the Occupied West Bank town of Huwwara off the map, and the hardline National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir starting up a national guard that looks more like a state-sponsored settler militia, Ashrawi sees this attack as the extension of its political agenda. She sees Israel’s calls for mass exodus as long baked into the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s outlook and that it is now using conflict as an opportunity to seize more land and dispossess of Palestinians.

“Am I going to sit back and worry that I might be expelled?” she asks rhetorically. “No! Palestinians are staying, they are not going to accept any kind of expulsion.”

For Abdallah, the old safety that people found in Shifa hospital’s parking lot during past wars was also in panicked evacuation mode and no longer a refuge. But he at least hoped it would be a place he and his mother could catch a ride out of Gaza city. Pushing her down empty streets in the direction of a hospital in chaos, he sent his last message, a video of an empty war damaged street in bright afternoon sun. “This is where I went to school,” he said, panning across the stucco building that Israel has indicated won’t be there much longer. Then, his line too went dead.

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