Palestinians across Middle East mark Nakba with eyes on Gaza

Palestinians across the Middle East on Wednesday are marking the anniversary of their mass expulsion from their homes with protests and other events at a time of mounting concern over the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

The Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe”, refers to the around 750,000 Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed alongside the 1948 creation of the state of Israel.

More than twice that number have been displaced within Gaza since the start of Israel’s war on the strip.

UN agencies say 550,000 people, nearly a quarter of Gaza’s 2.3 million people, have been newly displaced in just the last week, as Israeli forces have moved into parts of the southern city of Rafah, along the border with Egypt, and reinvaded districts of northern Gaza.

“We lived through the Nakba not just once, but several times,” said Umm Shadi Sheikh Khalil, who was displaced from Gaza City and now lives in a tent in the central Gaza town of Deir Al-Balah.

The 1948 Nakba refugees and their descendants, who number some six million, live in built-up refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

In Gaza, they are the majority of the population, with most families having been pushed out of what is now central and southern Israel.

Painful memories

The ongoing war in Gaza has heavily impacted the territory’s refugee camps, which have been built up over the years into dense urban neighbourhoods.

In other camps across the region, the war has revived painful memories.

At a centre for elderly residents of the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Amina Taher recalled the day her family’s house in the village of Deir Al-Qassi, in today’s northern Israel, collapsed over their heads after being shelled by Israeli forces in 1948.

The house was next to a school that was being used as a base by Palestinian fighters, she said.

Taher, then three years old, was pulled from the rubble unharmed, but her one-year-old sister was killed.

Now she has seen the same scenes play out in news coverage of Gaza.

“When I would watch the news, I had a mental breakdown because then I remembered when the house fell on me,” she said.

“What harm did these children do to get killed like this?”

Daoud Nasser, also now living in Shatila, was six years old when his family fled from the village of Balad Al-Sheikh, near Haifa.

His father tried to return to their village in the early years after 1948, when the border was relatively porous, but found a Jewish family living in their house, he said.

Nasser said he would attempt the same journey if the border were not so heavily guarded.

“I would run. I’m ready to walk from here to there and sleep under the olive trees on my own land,” he said.

No end to war

Israel’s war on Gaza is one of the heaviest military onslaughts in recent history, obliterating entire neighborhoods in the Palestinian enclave and forcing some 80 percent of the population to flee their homes.

At least 35,233 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the strip’s health ministry. The UN says there is widespread hunger and that northern Gaza is in a “full-blown famine”.

Israeli troops launched operations in Rafah last week, seizing the nearby crossing into Egypt and moving into eastern districts of the city.

Though still short of the full-on invasion Israel has threatened, the incursion has already caused chaos on the city, where some 1.4 million Palestinians had crowded from across the territory.

The Israeli military on Wednesday called for additional evacuations in Gaza City, indicating it planned another incursion into the area that was an early target of the war.

The fighting in Rafah has made the nearby Karm Abu Salem (Kerem Shalom) crossing – Gaza’s main cargo terminal – mostly inaccessible from the Palestinian side.

Israel’s capture of the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing with Egypt has forced it to shut down and sparked a crisis of relations with the Arab country.

Aid groups say the loss of the two crossings has crippled efforts to provide humanitarian aid as needs mount.

In a statement on Tuesday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry accused Israel of “distorting the facts” and condemned its “desperate attempts” to blame Egypt for the continued closure of the crossing.

Egyptian officials have said the Rafah operation threatens the two countries’ decades-old peace treaty.

Shoukry was responding to remarks by Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who said there was a “need to persuade Egypt to reopen the Rafah crossing to allow the continued delivery of international humanitarian aid to Gaza”.

Egypt has played a key role in months of mediation efforts aimed at brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and the release of hostages. The latest round of talks ended last week without a breakthrough.

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