Palestinians mark saddest commemoration of the Nakba: ‘What is left for us to cry over?’

The flight of 450,000 people from Rafah after seven months of forced displacement in the Strip provides the backdrop to a particularly symbolic anniversary of the expulsion seven decades ago

Palestinians commemoration of the Nakba
Palestinians return to their homes in Zeitoun on May 15 after the withdrawal of Israeli troops.Mahmoud Issa (REUTERS)
Antonio Pita

On May 15, while Palestinians were commemorating a particularly poignant anniversary of the Nakba, the Israeli army ordered the forced evacuation of the inhabitants of two other neighborhoods in the north of the Strip: Shaykh Za’id and Al Mansihya, near Beit Lahiya. If the previous anniversary was symbolic because it marked 75 years since the mass expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to create the State of Israel in 1948, the 76th is even more so: the word Nakba has returned in recent months to the political vocabulary of the Middle East, not as a past memory of the great catastrophe that shapes the Palestinian identity, but as a new and present threat after seven months of war in Gaza with no end in sight.

Some 450,000 people have fled Rafah — the last refuge for the vast majority of Palestinians in the Strip — since last week when Israel seized the border crossing with Egypt and ordered a partial evacuation with a view to launching a ground offensive, according to United Nations data. The war in Gaza has generated the largest forced displacement of Palestinians since the Nakba, which translates as “catastrophe” in Arabic, when some 750,000 Palestinians (two thirds of the Arab population in the current State of Israel) were expelled or fled between 1947 and 1949 in the face of the advance of, at first, Jewish militias and later the newly created Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

On the eve of the anniversary, the Israeli army’s Arabic-language spokesman, Avichay Adraee, issued a mandatory evacuation order for Al-Atatra and Salatin, two areas of Jabalia, the largest refugee camp in Gaza (populated by the descendants of those who fled during the Nakba), which the IDF has reoccupied and in which more than 100,000 civilians are estimated to remain. “Hamas and other terrorist organizations are carrying out terrorist activities and firing rockets [from there] at Israeli localities,” he said.

If there is one place where Nakba is more than just a word, it is Gaza. Two-thirds of its 2.3 million inhabitants hold refugee status, inherited from those that fled seven decades ago. After the first Arab-Israeli war (1948-1949), Israel prevented them from returning and destroyed their homes or built agricultural cooperatives or national parks over the more than 400 villages where they had lived. In total, nearly six million Palestinians spread across Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria have refugee status, with hundreds of thousands more in other countries.

Fawzia Abu Libdeh is one of the Palestinians who lived through the Nakba. She told Al Jazeera television that this is the worst war she has experienced since she arrived in Gaza in 1948. “None [of the previous conflicts] is like this one. They torture us to leave our land, but we are from here and we will not leave,” she said.

Umm Mohammed, 80, originally from the Negev desert town then known in Arabic as Bir Seba (today, Beer Sheva in Israel), tells a similar story. She escaped to Gaza as a child with her family and today she is trying to escape again in a tent in Rafah, under the threat of an Israeli offensive or a new exodus. “There is no catastrophe worse than this one,” she told Reuters, using the word that gives its name to the Nakba. “I’ve been here for about 80 years and a catastrophe like this, I have not seen. Our homes have gone, our children have gone, our property has gone, our gold has gone, our incomes have gone — nothing is left. What is left for us to cry over?”

Palestinians flee Rafah after Israeli forces launched a ground and air operation, May 13, 2024.
Palestinians flee Rafah after Israeli forces launched a ground and air operation, May 13, 2024. Mohammed Salem (REUTERS)

“It’s how it’ll end”

The historical parallel is not only on the lips of Palestinians. Last November, in the first month of the war and during the massive displacement of 1.1 million people from northern Gaza, Israel’s Minister of Agriculture and a member of the Israeli security cabinet, Avi Dichter (of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud political formation), used the expression “Gaza Nakba 2023,″ before adding, “It’s how it’ll end.” “We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba. From an operational point of view, there is no way to wage a war — as the IDF seeks to do in Gaza — with masses between the tanks and the soldiers,” he said.

The ministers of the ultra-nationalist religious right, who intend to resume a permanent military presence in Gaza and rebuild the settlements that Ariel Sharon’s government unilaterally evacuated in 2005, have also been advocating for months what they have termed as “voluntary emigration,” a euphemism for creating even more hellish conditions to force Gazans to leave the Strip.

The displacement from northern Gaza at beginning of the war was the first major population exodus, but flight (whether directly ordered by the Israeli army or not) has become the norm since then. Either from house to house (or collective shelters or tents), and from locality to locality, depending on the intensity of the Israeli bombardments or fighting on the ground. Shelling and controlled explosions have also damaged or destroyed most of the residential areas in the north of the Strip.

Despite the importance of the event and the symbolism of the moment, there were no mass demonstrations on Wednesday, either in the Palestinian territories or in the diaspora. In Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, thousands of people occupied the main square with a large Palestinian flag and a black flag emblazoned with a map of historic Palestine and a key — the symbol of the homes abandoned in the Nakba and that many refugees still physically preserve — as well as the word “return,” in Arabic and English.

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