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What Palestinians in Gaza may fear even more than Israeli bombardment

Sakher Abu Dahouk in front of the razor wire of the separation barrier that surrounds his land in Beit Hanina Al-Balad in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. His extended family has moved several times since 1948, as Israel seized territory in subsequent wars, redrew boundaries and built more Jewish settlements. "We still have deeds to our land," in what's now southern Israel, he says.
Ayman Oghanna for NPR
Sakher Abu Dahouk in front of the razor wire of the separation barrier that surrounds his land in Beit Hanina Al-Balad in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. His extended family has moved several times since 1948, as Israel seized territory in subsequent wars, redrew boundaries and built more Jewish settlements. "We still have deeds to our land," in what's now southern Israel, he says.

BEIT HANINA AL-BALAD, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — Fatima Abu Dahouk sits on her porch on a rocky hillside in the rain, ruing the day in 1948 that her grandparents fled the farm that had been in their family for centuries, in what is now southern Israel.

"They thought they were leaving for only a month, maybe two," says Abu Dahouk, a 36-year-old mother of four. "But promises were broken."

They were never allowed back. Nor were the vast majority of Palestinians who fled or were expelled when Israel was created. Their homes were destroyed or given to Jewish refugees. Few, if any, received compensation for the loss of their land and property. Amnesty International says Israel has failed to recognize their right under international law to return to their land.

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"We still have land deeds that data back to the Ottoman era," says Abu Dahouk's husband, Sakher Abu Dahouk, 56, whose relatives hail from the same area.

Since 1948, his extended family has moved several times — from what is now Beer Sheva, Israel, to Jordan, to the Israeli-occupied West Bank — as Israel seized territory in subsequent wars, redrew boundaries and built more Jewish settlements.

A flock of sheep where Sakher Abu Dahouk and his wife Fatima Abu Dahouk live in the occupied West Bank, in the shadow of an Israeli settlement.
/ Ayman Oghanna for NPR
/
Ayman Oghanna for NPR
A flock of sheep where Sakher Abu Dahouk and his wife Fatima Abu Dahouk live in the occupied West Bank, in the shadow of an Israeli settlement.

That first displacement in 1948 set off a chain reaction — like dominoes falling, Fatima says — which has landed her here: A cinderblock house wedged between a sheep pen and a dry riverbed, behind a section of giant concrete barrier Israel built in 2002 after the second Palestinian intifada uprising.

Over the past three months, the vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza — some 2 million people — have been internally displaced by war, according to the United Nations. Some members of Israel's government want them to leave Gaza altogether.

But family histories like the Abu Dahouks' are why that idea hits such a nerve. It evokes the trauma of an earlier displacement that has become part of what it means to be Palestinian. That displacement reverberates through Palestinian music, culture and art. And it explains why people in Gaza — many, or perhaps most of whom have seen their homes destroyed — may refuse to relocate outside the Gaza Strip, even temporarily.

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What Israeli officials have said about relocating Palestinians

In November, two Israeli lawmakers published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for "countries around the world to accept limited numbers of Gazan families who have expressed a desire to relocate." (The authors, current members of Israel's parliament, are from two different political parties. Danny Danon, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud Party, is a former Israeli ambassador to the U.N.; Ram Ben-Barak, from a centrist political party called Yesh Atid, is a former director of Israel's Mossad spy agency.)

The idea of "voluntary migration" of Palestinians from Gaza — defined as the resettlement abroad of those who are willing — has gained traction with at least two members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition.

"We have to further the solution of supporting the migration of Gazan residents," Israel's national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, told a Jan. 3 news conference. "It is a correct, just, moral, and humane solution."

Israel's finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, has also expressed support for the large-scale transfer of civilians from Gaza. Last month, he told Israeli media that the removal of around 90% of Palestinians from the area would make Israel safer.

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"If there are 100,000 or 200,000 Arabs in Gaza and not 2 million, the whole discourse about the day after [the war ends] will be different," Smotrich was quoted as saying.

The U.S. State Department has called these comments "inflammatory and irresponsible." Both Smotrich and Ben-Gvir also live in West Bank settlements that the U.N. and U.S. consider to be illegally built on Palestinian land.

Netanyahu has distanced himself from his ministers' statements.

"Israel has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population," he said in a video statement Jan. 10.

The Israeli separation barrier surrounding the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
/ Ayman Oghanna for NPR
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Ayman Oghanna for NPR
The Israeli separation barrier surrounding the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

What Palestinians in Gaza want

Civilians in Gaza, for their part, are just struggling to survive. Gaza health officials say more than 24,000 people have been killed in Israel's military operation in the Gaza Strip over the past three months, since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack that Israel says killed 1,200 people. The United Nations warns famine is imminent.

But many Palestinians say they've heard about Ben-Gvir and Smotrich's statements — and are alarmed.

"We refuse to allow history to repeat itself," Zakaria Basouni, 55, told NPR on Jan. 14 in Rafah, Gaza's southernmost city.

Basouni fled bombing in northern Gaza and was taking refuge in Rafah, which has absorbed more than 1 million internally displaced people since Oct. 7. He said he's determined not to flee any farther south to Egypt, even if the border opens.

He said he'd rather die in Gaza than leave his land.

"We've been evicted from our homes under fire," another evacuee from northern Gaza, 27-year-old Mohammed Subeh, told NPR in Rafah on the same day. "It's just like our ancestors always told us, about how they lived in safety until they were suddenly dispersed to different countries."

"I won't let it happen to my family again," Subeh said.

Aid agencies may have a dilemma

Even with many, perhaps most, of the residential buildings in Gaza destroyed, many Palestinians fear exile more than anything.

So even if aid agencies were to explore temporarily transferring Gaza's civilians abroad — either to keep them safe while Israel fights Hamas or to house them while rebuilding Gaza after the war — that prospect is likely to face fierce opposition from Palestinians themselves.

The U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator, Martin Griffiths, said Jan. 12 that some countries have "offered to host civilians who want to leave Gaza, for their protection." He didn't specify which countries.

Israeli media, citing unnamed sources, report that members of Netanyahu's government have held secret talks with officials from the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries to discuss their possible willingness to absorb Palestinian refugees from Gaza. Congolese officials denied the reports, as did an Israeli official.

A British think tank run by former Prime Minister Tony Blairalso denied as a "lie" an Israeli TV report that Blair met Netanyahu in late December to discuss a role in resettling Palestinians from Gaza.

The U.N.'s Griffiths says he's "alarmed" by any talk of transferring Palestinians out of Gaza.

"These statements [by Israeli ministers] raise grave concerns about the possible forcible mass transfer or deportation of the Palestinian population from the Gaza Strip, something that would be strictly prohibited under international law," Griffiths told the Security Council.

84-year-old Mohammed Suleiman Khader lived through what Palestinians call the Nakba — the catastrophe — of 1948. That year, his family fled their village near what is now Tel Aviv, and came to Al-Am'ari refugee camp in Ramallah, where they've lived ever since. "We should have stayed. We shouldn't have left," he says.
/ Ayman Oghanna for NPR
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Ayman Oghanna for NPR
84-year-old Mohammed Suleiman Khader lived through what Palestinians call the Nakba — the catastrophe — of 1948. That year, his family fled their village near what is now Tel Aviv, and came to Al-Am'ari refugee camp in Ramallah, where they've lived ever since. "We should have stayed. We shouldn't have left," he says.

Some Palestinians have been refugees for 76 years

In 1948, and again in 1967, Palestinians displaced from their lands were resettled in U.N. refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These areas are still dotted with camps, and they no longer feel temporary.

In fact, they're mostly indistinguishable from the urban streets around them. Palestinian refugee camps house schools, markets, mosques and U.N. offices. In the Al-Am'ari camp in the West Bank capital Ramallah, narrow passageways are spraypainted with graffiti celebrating Hamas and other militant groups.

That's where Mohammed Suleiman Khader, 84, has lived for 76 years — since he was 8 years old. He was born in an Arab village called Al-Na'ani, south of what is now Tel Aviv.

"I remember the Zionist gangs coming to our village, pressuring us to leave. We were the last family to go," Khader recalls, paging through an atlas of depopulated Arab villages. "I remember it like yesterday. We left at 5 p.m., with our bedding on our backs."

84-year-old Mohammed Suleiman Khader looks through an atlas of old Arab villages — searching for his.
/ Ayman Oghanna for NPR
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Ayman Oghanna for NPR
84-year-old Mohammed Suleiman Khader looks through an atlas of old Arab villages — searching for his.

The village was destroyed after his family left, he says. He couldn't go back.

"I still remember the watermelons we grew in our garden," Khader says, smiling.

He says his parents died with regrets that they didn't insist on staying on their land — come what may.

It's what many Palestinians in Gaza are weighing now, Khader says.

"What we felt then, our people are feeling again now," he says.

NPR producer Anas Baba contributed to this report from Rafah.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Frayer
Lauren Frayer covers South Asia for NPR News. In 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.