‘Will we return?’: For my Palestinian family, history is repeating itself

Photo albums, baby formula, toys and clothes — that’s all we could take as we left Gaza City after Israel’s order to evacuate.

A photo of the author's grandfather, in their home in Deir el-Balah, southern Gaza
A photo of the author's grandfather, in their home in Deir el-Balah, southern Gaza [Maram Humaid/Al Jazeera]

Deir el-Balah, Gaza — On the eighth day, my family and I awoke still in shock, finding ourselves in a new location within the Gaza Strip, the town of Deir el-Balah in the south of the enclave.

The harrowing scenes from the previous day remained etched in our minds. During the early hours of the previous day, while intense bombings continued to shake Gaza, journalists in WhatsApp groups began discussing rumours of Israeli calls for residents of the northern and central Gaza Strip to evacuate southwards.

Some journalists initially dismissed this as Israeli psychological warfare meant to intimidate people.

For a brief moment, I shifted my focus from the ongoing Israeli bombardments around us to verifying the credibility of this news, which had been reported by some international agencies. My anxiety mounted as I moved from room to room in our house, searching for a stable internet connection amid communications and power outages.

When the internet reconnected, the definitive news arrived: the Israeli army spokesperson, Avichai Adraee, officially announced the order on his Facebook page.

This brought about moments of confusion, disbelief, and disorientation. I rushed to wake my husband, but he remained silent in response. Wary of disturbing my parents, who had endured a restless night, I contacted my brothers instead.

My younger brother’s immediate response was a mix of inquiry and concern: “What should we do? What does this mean?”

My husband’s one word — emphasising the importance of our children — dispelled my confusion and underscored the urgency of the situation. The images of innocent children and infants killed in previous bombings weighed heavily on my mind.

Yet, the question persisted: Where would we go? We faced a dilemma, as my husband’s family had relatives in Nuseirat in central Gaza, while my own family had connections in Deir el-Balah.

After much debate, my husband’s family decided to head to Nuseirat, swayed by the insistence of mothers on leaving to protect their children.

It became evident that the welfare of children was the primary factor influencing the decision amid these chaotic and perilous times.

I reached out to my brother again, stressing the need to move our family and parents to my grandfather’s house in Deir el-Balah.

He readily accepted. At eight in the morning, I continued to prepare, watching the news, periodically calling my family and repacking my bags.

However, a new challenge emerged: how would we all be transported? I didn’t own a car, and the majority of Gaza residents lacked access to private vehicles. Frustration and tension swelled as we contemplated the scale of Israel’s decision to relocate so many people to the south.

As my husband reached out to his uncles to secure transport for the family to Nuseirat, my father called to inform me that he was on his way to pick up my mother and sisters. He offered to return to take me, my children, my husband, and the rest of the family to Deir el-Balah.

With a sigh of relief and a glimmer of hope, I felt a growing sense of clarity as my father’s call marked a turning point.

My husband and I focused on packing essential supplies, including food, water, canned goods, diapers and baby formula. Uncertainty loomed, prompting us to prepare for the unknown. Alongside our belongings, I packed a photo album, extra clothing for our children, children’s books for entertainment, a blanket, and a first-aid kit.

Unlike previous evacuations, my emotions felt distinct, as if this were not just a temporary departure but a permanent migration. My husband’s pessimistic remark that we might not return hung in the air, making me question the uncertain path ahead.

As the events unfolded rapidly around me, I struggled to process the blurry landscape before us. Outside, I watched neighbours loading their belongings onto transport trucks.

Amid a heated discussion with my husband, our daughter Baniyas, who had awakened from her sleep, interrupted us with a simple question: Why were we packing bags? My husband gently explained that we had to leave because of Israel’s threat to bomb our area, and we would be heading to Deir el-Balah. Baniyas, though reluctant, eventually accepted, her father reassuring her that we hoped to return soon.

My father, accompanied by my brother, arrived to transport me, my husband, our children, and our belongings to Deir el-Balah. A profound sadness, helplessness and confusion washed over me as I carried our baby, my husband held Baniyas’s hand, and my brother helped with the bags.

Tears welled up as we descended the stairs, and countless thoughts swirled in my mind, chiefly among them: Would we return? Would our homes be destroyed?

I entered the car with a heavy heart, and silence enveloped us all. I sat in the back with one bag in hand, beside Baniyas, while my husband held our baby, and my brother managed the rest of our belongings. The road was congested with citizens seeking transport.

People with packed bags stood at street intersections searching for rides, and some walked or rode in trucks. The homes and streets we passed bore scars of devastation from Israeli strikes.

I called a friend along the way to inquire about the safest routes that had not yet been destroyed, to help us reach Deir el-Balah. We eventually reached the Salah al-Din Road, which links the Gaza Strip to the southern governorates.

The scene along this route was both striking and heart-wrenching. Families, children, and men with their belongings walked alongside the road. A seemingly endless procession of vehicles, overloaded with possessions and passengers beyond capacity, made their way forward. The tops of these vehicles were piled high with bedding and mattresses.

Our journey continued until we reached the entrance to Deir el-Balah. Although the trip should have taken half an hour, it lasted an hour and a half due to the road conditions.

We navigated through narrow streets, eventually arriving at my grandfather’s house in the city centre.

We were not the only ones seeking refuge there; our relatives had also gathered. My uncle stood there, welcoming everyone. The neighbouring houses were similarly receiving displaced people from Gaza City.

When I entered my grandfather’s home, the first sight that greeted me was his portrait hanging on the wall. My grandfather had been displaced during the Nakba of 1948 from the village of Isdud — what Israel now calls Ashdod — and passed away in 2002 without realising his dream of returning.

Now, his grandchildren found themselves displaced and evicted in the year 2023. The old house, which had been closed for years, opened its doors to accommodate us as refugees in our own land.

From inside the house, I heard the roar of a new air strike, prompting me to tell my mother that today: “History repeats itself.”

Source: Al Jazeera