In early November, an Israeli bomb upended Mona Abdel Raheem’s life in Gaza.
The explosion destroyed her home and killed her neighbour in Jabalia, a densely populated refugee camp in the north of the enclave. Abdel Raheem had no choice but to flee south with her husband, sisters and grandchildren.
They were among 1.1 million Palestinians who heeded Israel’s command to evacuate northern Gaza, an order that may amount to the forced transfer of a population, which is a war crime.
“We left and didn’t have time to take anything from our home. Everything around us was destroyed,” Abdel Raheem, 63, told Al Jazeera from Rafah, a city in the southern Gaza Strip.
Abdel Raheem has lived through several wars but none as devastating as Israel’s current onslaught on Gaza. UN experts, rights groups and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) have all warned that Palestinians in Gaza face a real risk of genocide unless Israel halts its attacks against them.
Since Hamas’s surprise attack on Israeli communities and military outposts on October 7, in which 1,139 people were killed and 240 taken captive to Gaza, Israel has retaliated by punishing the entire population of Gaza, according to experts and Palestinians.
Abdel Raheem recalled her exodus from northern Gaza as well as the deaths of loved ones killed by Israeli bombing, which has flattened nearly everything in the besieged enclave.
“The occupying [Israeli] forces carry responsibility for destroying all our homes and all our trees and for killing our children,” Abdel Raheem told Al Jazeera. “Why don’t any of the Arab or European countries care about the Palestinian people? Palestine is being destroyed.”
Abdel Raheem had not been born yet when 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homeland to make way for the creation of Israel in 1948 – an event referred to in Arabic as the Nakba, or catastrophe. But, like all Palestinians, she grew up learning about the Nakba and always yearned to return to her family’s village.
She never imagined that she would live through another mass exodus. However, as she was fleeing Jabalia, Abdel Raheem sensed that history was repeating itself.
She recalled walking in humiliation with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians – men, women and children – past Israeli soldiers. Along the way, she saw dozens of people’s bodies rotting on the road after they were killed by Israeli shelling.
Hundreds of people were also detained at each Israeli checkpoint. The treacherous journey took days.
“As we were walking, there were people being killed by Israeli warplanes,” Abdel Raheem said. “They were being killed directly in front of us.”
The expulsion of Palestinians from northern Gaza is the latest chapter of Palestinian dispossession, according to Shatha Abdulsamad, an expert on Palestinian refugees with Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think tank.
“I think the Israelis are trying to finish the job that they started in the Nakba in 1948. What we are seeing in Gaza is no exception. The only exception is that the scale of the destruction is unprecedented,” she told Al Jazeera.
Killing aid workers
On November 24, Abdel Raheem received news that Israeli shelling killed her brother-in-law and his family in northern Gaza.
Osama was an Arabic language supervisor for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which has provided healthcare, education and other services to Palestinian refugees since the Nakba. Osama was killed along with his son, daughter-in-law and three granddaughters.
“He didn’t have any relation with any armed organisation or Palestinian movement. He was a civilian,” Abdel Raheem said.
Since October 7, Israel has killed more than 150 UNRWA staff with its indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza. That’s the highest number of UN staff killed in any conflict since the UN was founded in 1945.
The killing of UNRWA employees is emblematic of Israel’s broader assault against the aid organisation.
On the same day that the ICJ ruled it “plausible” that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza, the Israeli government alleged that 12 UNRWA employees took part in Hamas’s October 7 attacks.
But according to Channel 4 News, which obtained internal Israeli intelligence documents, Israel provided no evidence that UNRWA employees were involved in the October 7 attacks.
Despite the lack of evidence, a number of Israel’s Western allies – such as Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States – cut funding to UNRWA even as famine looms due to Israel’s siege on Gaza.
“If UNRWA stops, then everything will collapse on Palestinians,” said one Gaza UNRWA employee, who is not authorised to speak to the press.
“All the requirements to sustain life will be destroyed, especially for the elderly and for children.”
At the end of January, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani travelled to Paris to meet intelligence officials from Israel, Egypt and the US.
They discussed a possible humanitarian pause whereby Hamas would release women and children held captive in exchange for a scale-up in humanitarian aid. Steps to secure a permanent ceasefire would follow.
News of the meeting reached Gaza, where rumours spread that an end to the war was imminent. Over X (formerly Twitter), videos surfaced of children, elderly men and teenagers dancing and celebrating the news. Abdel Raheem was hoping, even praying, that the rumours were true. But the truce has yet to materialise.
We want to go home! We want to go home!”
Palestinians chant and celebrate the news of a purported ceasefire agreement.
— sajida afzal (@mahadabdul36) February 2, 2024
“Every day, every hour, every minute and every second, we all fear that we are going to die,” Abdel Raheem said with resignation.
Those fears were compounded when Israel announced on Friday that it was going to target Rafah, an area near the Egyptian border where about 1.8 million Palestinians like Abdel Raheem have sought shelter.
Most civilians in Rafah are staying in residential buildings or sleeping on the cold streets in tents. Abdel Raheem and her husband are staying in a middle school for girls that is now an UNRWA shelter
Some Israeli intelligence and government officials have long called for all Palestinians in Gaza to be expelled to Egypt. However, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has made it clear that he would not support any move that could lead to the permanent displacement of Palestinians from Gaza.
Abdel Raheem said that even if she could cross into Egypt, she would prefer to die on her land.
“There is no way we are going to Egypt. This is our country and our land. We are Palestinian,” she said.
“If we die, then we want to die here.”