Gaza City, Gaza – Ahmed al-Saadi and his family have so far escaped the Israeli bombing campaign that has levelled entire neighbourhoods and killed more than 1,900 people in the Gaza Strip since last Saturday.
But after they sought refuge in a United Nations school, that too was attacked from the air – multiple times, said al-Saadi.
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“Some people were killed. If schools are not safe, then where do we go? Where can an entire population seek safety?” he asked.
Al-Saadi’s question is at the centre of a growing mix of desperation and defiance in the blockaded coastal enclave, as Israel prepares for a ground assault on Gaza.
Israel has issued a military order for northern and central Gaza residents to evacuate their homes, as such areas are now classified by Israel as a “war zone”. On Thursday night, the order gave the people of Gaza, and even UN personnel stationed there, just 24 hours to vacate.
The Israeli military distributed pamphlets from the sky and made pre-recorded phone calls to inform residents of their intention to target “terror sites” associated with Hamas and other armed groups.
“You will be able to return to Gaza City only when another announcement permitting it is made,” the military said. “Do not approach the area of the security fence with the State of Israel”.
The United Nations has called the move “impossible” and warned of “catastrophic consequences”, while the government media office in Gaza commented that this Israeli decision unveils the true “criminal face” of Israel.
That order led thousands of people in Gaza to move towards the Strip’s south on Friday.
But Israeli warplanes targeted two trucks and a car at three different points on the Salah al-Din and al-Rashid streets. The vehicles had families who were on their way to the southern Gaza Strip.
At least 70 Palestinians were killed in the attacks, mostly women and children, Gaza’s government media office said, and more than 200 were wounded.
To many Palestinians, the moment echoes the experiences of their ancestors in 1948, when militias and then the army of the newly formed Israel destroyed more than 500 Palestinian villages and towns. Thousands were killed, and more than 750,000 Palestinians were uprooted from their land and forced to flee. Palestinians refer to that period as the Nakba, or catastrophe.
Then too, no one was spared – not women nor children; not the elderly, nor those fleeing Israeli attacks. Those displaced in 1948 have never managed to return. To those who are fleeing under Israeli orders, the possibility of a repeat seems real – if there is anyone left to return in the first place.
One man from the Gharbawi family told a press conference that he was travelling south with more than 20 relatives and members of the Abu Ali family.
“It was mostly women and children,” he said. “I fell unconscious after the first Israeli strike targeted us. I woke up, looked around and saw my own family killed or injured. One girl’s brain was spilling out of her head.”
When the ambulances came to the site, another Israeli air attack struck again.
“I took cover behind a wall,” the man said. “I swear to you, there was a third air strike. It’s as if they want to kill all the women and children.”
Yet, while thousands of people are evacuating, many others refuse to do so – and overall support for armed resistance to Israel’s attacks appears intact. Crowds thronged the streets in different parts of Gaza on Friday, chanting slogans and insisting that they will not leave their homes.
The bombings of the convoys of people leaving for the south have reinforced those sentiments.
“If they are bombing us anyway everywhere, then why should we leave? We are staying home and we want to die at home,” Karam Abu Quta, a resident of Gaza City who refused to evacuate, told Al Jazeera.
15 min ago, a mini-bus carrying a family and their belongings that fled from Gaza heading south on Salaeh Deen road was bombed. All killed on spot. https://t.co/M2996cEAgj
— Younis Tirawi | يونس (@ytirawi) October 13, 2023
Israel has maintained its full blockade on Gaza for a seventh day now, pushing the humanitarian landscape into further de-development and preventing entry of urgent medical equipment and daily life supplies into the enclave.
“They are cutting us off from water, food and electricity, and now they are pushing us to leave our homes. Why are they doing this to us? Is it only because we are Palestinians living in Gaza?” a Gaza City resident told Al Jazeera, expressing feelings of frustration and a widespread sense of injustice among the people.
“This is a second Nakba. But the occupation should understand that we will continue to remain rooted in our land and stand for our just rights of freedom, peace and safety.”