Panic and confusion gripped the northern Gaza Strip on Friday, where thousands of people were fleeing south after the Israeli military ordered a mass evacuation of parts of the densely crowded, impoverished and besieged coastal strip that is home to more than two million Palestinians.
As anticipation of an imminent Israeli ground invasion grew, some Gaza residents said they feared this could end up being the start of another permanent mass displacement like the one in 1948, when more than 700,000 Palestinians either fled or were expelled from their homes in present-day Israel during the war surrounding the nation’s establishment. But it was too soon to tell.
“As I am packing my things I am wondering, is this really another nakba? I am taking my house key and thinking, will I ever return to my home, will I ever see my home again?” said Dr. Arwa El-Rayes, 56, a doctor of internal medicine, speaking in the last moments before she fled her childhood home in Gaza City in the north, the main city in the territory. The nakba, which means catastrophe, is how Palestinians refer to the displacement of 1948.
The Israeli military says that it is urging the more than one million residents of northern Gaza to move to the southern half of the enclave for their own safety, even as residents said airstrikes on the south continued. But there has been no suggestion that they should leave the territory or that they will not be allowed to return to their homes after the fighting.
The majority of Gaza’s population, some 1.7 million of the 2.1 million residents, are among those who were forced to leave their homes in 1948, or their descendants. In 1948, many Palestinians were told they would be allowed to return to their homes after a few days or weeks. Many took with them just a few belongings and the keys to their front doors. But they were never allowed to return.
The Gaza Strip has been under intense airstrikes for days, in an onslaught unleashed after Hamas, the group that controls Gaza, launched a surprise attack on southern Israel over the weekend that killed more than 1,300 people — including civilians and soldiers.
Israeli airstrikes have killed more than 1,500 people in Gaza since then, according to the territory’s health ministry.
Gazans said they are worried that they are being forced to go to a sparse and somewhat rural area with no services. The strip has already been cut off from water, food and electricity after Israel imposed what it called a “complete siege” days ago.
Some residents said they decided to stay in their homes, despite the grave danger of an Israeli ground invasion, worried about being permanently displaced.
Gaza resident Mahmoud Shurrab said he saw the warnings to evacuate the northern part of the Gaza Strip on Facebook on Friday morning and quickly packed a backpack with important documents. He then began driving with his mother south seeking safety.
On the way, he said, he saw droves of people lining to fill their gas tanks, and others loading luggage into their cars. He, along with many other Gazans, reached a town just south of the evacuation zone but still close to their homes in the north. He and his mother are staying out on the streets for now, without shelter.
“We are disoriented,” he said in a phone interview with The New York Times. “We don’t know whether we will return or not. Nobody understands what’s going on. The biggest problem is that we have no idea where to stay,” he added.
Iyad Bozm, the spokesman for the Hamas-run Interior Ministry in Gaza, insisted that this would not be a repeat of the exodus in 1948.
“We will return to our land again,” he said.
Some Gazans who want to flee with their families don’t have vehicles, and were setting out either on foot or catching rides in trucks. Others said the roads have been damaged by nearly a week of Israeli airstrikes and were difficult to navigate.
Iyad Abuheweila contributed reporting.