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Thousands Flee Gaza After Israel Orders Mass Evacuation

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Panic and chaos gripped the northern Gaza Strip Friday as thousands of people fled south in vehicles piled high with blankets and mattresses along two main roads after the Israeli military ordered a mass evacuation of half of the besieged coastal strip.

But rather than finding safety from a feared ground invasion, at least 70 people were killed along the way when Israeli airstrikes hit some of the vehicles fleeing south, according to the Gazan authorities.

Some Gaza residents said they feared this could be the start of another permanent mass displacement like the one in 1948, when more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled their homes in present-day Israel during the war surrounding the nation’s establishment. But it was too soon to tell.

“As I’m packing my things, I’m wondering: Is this really another nakba?” said Dr. Arwa el-Rayes, a 56-year-old doctor, speaking in the last moments before she left her childhood home in Gaza City in the north. The nakba, which means catastrophe, is how Palestinians refer to the 1948 displacement.

“I’m taking my house key and thinking, will I ever return to my home?” she added.

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 are their descendants. In 1948, Palestinians were told they would be allowed to return after a few days or weeks, and they took just a few belongings and the keys to their front doors. But they were never allowed back.

The Israeli military warned the more than one million residents of northern Gaza to move to the south of the densely populated enclave for their own safety, even as the Gazan authorities said airstrikes on the south continued. Those who evacuated would be allowed to return home “only when another announcement permitting it is made,” the Israeli military said. But Israel has not suggested they will never be allowed to go back.

Gaza has been under intense airstrikes for nearly a week, an onslaught unleashed after Hamas, the group that controls the territory, 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 1,900 people in Gaza since then, according to the territory’s health ministry, a toll that has been rapidly rising each day. The Israeli assault persisted even as people were trying to evacuate to safer ground.

The Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza said that airstrikes had killed at least 70 Palestinians and injured 200 who were trying to flee the north by car on a main highway — one of the few routes to an area farther south. The Israeli military said it was looking into the reports.

Video of the aftermath of one of the strikes, which hit an open-bed truck, showed bloodied and wounded people among suitcases.

Some of those killed as they were trying to flee were left in the road, as no one dared to stop and pick them up, the Gazan authorities said.

Some residents who wanted to leave with their families didn’t have vehicles, and were setting out either on foot, carrying with them what they could, or piling onto others’ trucks. Two men made their way south on a donkey-drawn cart and flashed peace signs as they went.

But the roads were damaged by nearly a week of Israeli airstrikes, and difficult to navigate.

“This is a massive and alarming population transfer,” said Francesca Albanese, the United Nations special rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

The Israeli military chief of general staff, Herzi Halevi, warned on Thursday that after the Israeli military assault, “Gaza will not look the same.”

But that was not enough to persuade some people to leave their homes. Some residents in the north said they had decided to stay in their homes, despite the grave danger of an Israeli ground invasion, worried about being permanently displaced. Those old enough to remember the 1948 exodus especially did not want to be part of what could be a repeat.

One woman in her mid 70s had to be carried out of her home in Gaza City by her children because she didn’t want to leave, a relative said.

“She’s got her key on her. All the Palestinians have their keys on them now,” Samah Sabawi, her niece who lives abroad, said after her cousins described the situation to her. “And she was sobbing.”

In Gaza City, the main population center in the territory, many were seeking shelter in city schools and hospitals.

“There is no cease-fire for us to be able to leave,” said Mohammed el-Herbawy, a father of one and the owner of a party center in Gaza City. He and 20 members of his extended family worried about evacuating without a guarantee of safe passage.

But hours later, even though they were terrified the entire way, they too joined the convoy of vehicles heading south, passing Gaza City streets they said they no longer recognized because of the days of airstrikes. Some roads were not passable because of the damage, he said.

The Palestine Red Crescent said Friday that it didn’t have the means to evacuate the sick and wounded from hospitals, or older people and the disabled.

“There are no safe areas in the whole of the Gaza Strip,” the group said in a statement. It called on the international community to immediately intervene, adding that all of Gaza feels that the world has turned its back on it.

Ms. el-Rayes, the doctor in Gaza City, headed out with her brother, his wife and their five children — the youngest of whom is 4. When they left their home, they took a few changes of clothes, three bottles of water — all they had left from their dwindling supply — and the house key.

Outside on the streets, people were confused about what to do or where to go, and there was a sense of chaos and panic.

Ms. el-Rayes didn’t want to leave.

“But when you see the young children staring at you in fear, you’re forced to flee,” she said.

Along the drive down the coastal highway, one of two main roads connecting northern and southern Gaza, she said she was tormented by thoughts of whether she would ever see her home again. After her family arrived at a friend’s house in the southern city of Khan Younis, airstrikes hit nearby.

“We are thinking of going back home,” she said. “It’s better for us to die in our own home.”

Another Gaza resident, Mahmoud Shurrab, said he saw the warnings to evacuate northern Gaza 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 and his mother reached a town just south of the evacuation zone but were staying out on the streets, without shelter.

“We are disoriented,” he said. “We don’t know whether we will return or not. Nobody understands what’s going on.”

The 1948 displacements and others that followed in the decades-long Palestinian-Israeli conflict have left a lasting trauma on many Palestinians. Many of them across the world still keep the keys to the homes they never returned to and pass them down to newer generations — enduring symbols of the hope of one day returning.

In 1967, nearly two decades after the 1948 war, another war erupted in the region, resulting in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In the aftermath, some 400,000 Palestinians were displaced, half of whom were refugees who had been previously displaced in 1948, according to the BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, a human rights organization.

An influx of hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers in the West Bank over the years and expanding settlements there have driven Palestinians off large swathes of land. In 2001, there were 200,000 Israeli settlers. But by 2021, that number had risen to more than 465,000, according to Peace Now, an Israeli group that monitors settlement activity. About 2.8 million Palestinians live in the West Bank.

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 vowed.

Iyad Abuheweila, Ameera Harouda and Aaron Boxerman contributed reporting.

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