As Rafah offensive looms, Palestinians fear dispossession again

Palestinians evacuate after Israeli forces launched a ground and air operation in the eastern part of Rafah

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Mohammad Salem

CAIRO/GAZA (Reuters) - As Israeli forces mass on the outskirts of the southern Gaza city of Rafah, Palestinians fear another "Nakba", when 700,000 of them were permanently driven from their homes at the creation of Israel in 1948.

Many people in Rafah, where over one million have been sheltering as Israel pounds the Gaza Strip in its war with Hamas, have been displaced several times over as the anniversary of the Nakba, or catastrophe, approaches on May 15.

Having moved four times since leaving Gaza City in the north in October, Mohammad Emad and his family have now left Rafah for the central town of Deir Al-Balah.

"I used to hear tales of the Nakba from my father, who heard those stories from my grandfather. Now when I think about it and compare, I think what happened in 1948 it didn't come close to how brutal our present Nakba is," the 22-year-old told Reuters via a chat app.

In 1948, some Palestinians fled to neighbouring Arab states, including to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, where many of them or their descendants still live in refugee camps. Some went to Gaza. Israel disputes the account that they were forced out.

The uncertainty has returned, only this time the borders are closed and refuge is harder to find.

Mediators have failed to secure a lasting ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Israeli military strikes have killed 60 people and wounded 110 others across the Gaza Strip in the past 24 hours, the territory's Hamas-controlled health ministry said.

The United Nations, Gaza residents and aid groups say further Israeli incursions into Rafah will result in a humanitarian catastrophe.

Israel says it must hit Rafah to defeat thousands of Hamas fighters it says are holed up there. But the city is also a refuge for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled combat farther north.

The war erupted on Oct. 7 after Hamas raided Israel, killed 1,200 people and took over 200 hostages to Gaza. Israel responded with air strikes that have killed nearly 35,000 Palestinians, and reduced much of Gaza to rubble as shortages of food, fuel and medicine bring misery to the population.

Um Zaki, a widowed mother of four daughters and two sons, said moving from Rafah to Al-Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza was the third time her family had been displaced since it left Gaza City.

Drivers charged her 1,500 shekels - 20 times the price before the war - for the journeys and, like many others, she also had to buy a tent.

"I paid $1,000 just for transport and a tent. If you live on the moon you wouldn't pay such an amount, but the war created some greedy people," she said.

Riding on a horse and cart away from Rafah with their meagre belongings, the Al-Kafarna family, including a baby born during the war, feel helpless.

"What is the fault of these children - what can we say?" said the baby's mother Laila Al-Kafarna.

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Mark Potter)