Umm Ghadeer’s earliest memories are of the Nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948 in which about 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homeland after the creation of Israel. She was three years old. Last month she was forced to abandon her home all over again, fleeing Shejaiya, a neighbourhood of Gaza City, after the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas.
“I cried very hard because I relived the experience of displacement when we fled our homes in 1948. We fled. Some people were walking on the streets, some in cars, some screaming, some crying. We lost so many people,” she said. “So many awful things happened in 1948. I am now scared of the same thing.”
When Umm Ghadeer was a child, her family lived in Lydd, which in Hebrew is known as Lod, a small Arab town that was supposed to be part of the new Palestinian state in the UN partition plan that created Israel. In July of that year, however, Israeli forces occupied the town.
Almost all of Lydd’s inhabitants were expelled from their homes. About 60,000 people from Lydd and nearby Ramla were forced on to what is known as the death march to Ramallah; up to 170 people who sought shelter in Lydd’s mosque were massacred by Israeli soldiers.
Like many others, Umm Ghadeer’s family eventually found a new home in the Gaza Strip. Refugees and their descendants from what is now Israel represent 70% of the Palestinian territory’s population of 2.3 million.
The retired teacher, now 78, cried when she said goodbye to her home in Shejaiya last month as younger family members helped her and her husband to evacuate to the southern half of the strip after the Israeli military said it would be safer there.
“Gazans still haven’t had time to rebuild their homes that were destroyed in the first war on Gaza [in 2008]. Half of Shejaiya neighbourhood was levelled and is still not rebuilt, like so many other neighbourhoods,” she said.
The Guardian was in touch with Umm Ghadeer two weeks ago and contact has since been lost. At the time, after a perilous journey on roads that were bombed, the family were sheltering in Zawayda, a refugee camp near the central town of Deir al-Balah, at the home of a friend, along with her son, daughter-in-law and five grandchildren, aged between three and 14.
Gaza’s south is still very dangerous: an airstrike near the southern town of Khan Younis killed at least 26 people on Saturday. Food, water, fuel and medicine are in short supply, and Israel has said it is expanding its operations against Hamas to areas south of Gaza City, raising fears for the hundreds of thousands of civilians who have sought refuge there.
Umm Ghadeer’s health has suffered, she has hypertension, has barely eaten and cries a lot since the family made their way south. “I felt that they told us to go south so that they could slowly push us out into Sinai [the desert peninsula controlled by Egypt], set up tents and keep us there. That would be a second Nakba, just like the previous one, and this is it. I cannot digest what’s happening,” she said.
The IDF’s relentless air and ground campaign, launched in response to Hamas attacks in Israel that Israeli officials say killed 1,200 people and saw about 240 captured as hostages, has already killed 12,300 people, more than 5,000 of them children, according to the Hamas government.
More than half of the strip’s population has been displaced during the six weeks of fighting. Images of dishevelled, distressed families walking south through ruined streets and being searched by soldiers have been powerfully evocative of the Nakba.
The Israeli military has repeatedly said civilians will be allowed to return home when the war is over, but the assurances mean little to Palestinians such as Umm Ghadeer who are still dealing with the consequences of what happened in 1948.
Last week Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right minister in the Israeli government, said Gaza would “not survive as an independent entity” and Palestinians should leave for other countries, driving home fears across the region that Israel seeks to destroy the hope of a Palestinian state altogether.
“May God help the people who have lost their loved ones,” Umm Ghadeer said. “We pray for justice and hope if there are any ‘human rights’ that they will be applied to our people. People are now homeless, in the streets. Until when? And what does Israel get out of that?”