Athens, Greece – Diaspora Palestinians who were uprooted during previous crises fear they may be witnessing the biggest forced displacement in their lifetimes.
“They tell us to go to the south [of Gaza],” said Salma Shawa, referring to Israel’s order to 1.5 million Palestinians living in the northern Gaza Strip to move south last month.
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“So slowly, slowly we will go to the border and then to Sinai? Is this the solution? So Gaza will be gone also? And then [the Israelis] will go to the West Bank and Jerusalem, so we will all be gone?”
Israel ordered the evacuation, claiming it was attempting to minimise civilian casualties as it launched a ground war against Hamas, which attacked Israel on October 7, killing about 1,200 people.
But after telling Palestinians to leave their homes, Israel bombed sites in the south, including areas it had declared as safe.
Since Israel declared war against Hamas, it has killed more than 14,100 Palestinians in Gaza, the densely populated enclave run by the Palestinian armed group.
Shawa, whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather all served as mayors of Gaza, is not sure evacuated Palestinians will ever be allowed to return.
Her sister, who still lives in Gaza with her family, had to leave because her house was damaged by bombing.
“My sister is not sure they can go back to their houses. Some of them tried and they were bombed,” said Shawa.
Shawa arrived in Athens in 2000 and now works for the Athens Bar Association.
Others have been here longer, in a community approximately 13,000-strong.
Razan Simaan’s parents were forced from Palestine during the Nakba, or catastrophe, as it is known, of 1948.
Between 1947 and 1949, Palestinians were dispossessed and displaced as Israel was created, with Zionist paramilitaries forcibly removing 750,000 Palestinians from their homes. About 15,000 Palestinians were killed, including in several massacres.
Simaan was born in Beirut. Her family moved to Athens during the first Lebanese civil war.
Hamas’s attack came as no surprise, she said.
“There’s nothing happening that’s new, it’s just much more amplified,” Simaan said. “We’re a little bit in shock that this isn’t clearer to the rest of the world. For us injustice is something we were born with and grew up with.”
Israel’s Western allies – the United States, United Kingdom and the European Union – have labelled Hamas a “terrorist organisation”.
“Hamas is irrelevant,” said Simaan. “Hamas wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the occupation. It is a direct outcome of Israel.”
Other Palestinians agree with her.
“Anyone who is under occupation has the right to use whatever means necessary to be free,” said Latif Darwish, a professor of economics and crisis management at Cardiff Metropolitan University.
“Hamas simply launched a military attack, which is something Palestinians are on the receiving end of every day. It was not a crime,” Darwish said.
Like many Palestinians here, Darwish believed the Israelis knew the attack was coming and let it happen in order to invade Gaza.
He said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently brandished a map showing all of Palestine as sovereign Israeli territory at the United Nations General Assembly.
“There was a plan to eliminate Gaza or the people of Gaza. They were looking for an excuse,” said Ahmed Hassan, the president of the Palestinian Association.
He pointed to reports that Egyptian intelligence had tipped off the Israelis of an impending attack on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War.
“Perhaps [the Israeli government] welcomed this attack without realising what the consequences would be,” Hassan suggested.
The Palestinians who spoke to Al Jazeera believed there was still hope for Palestinian self-determination and peace with Israel but were not sure what the formula should be.
“We don’t hate like the Israelis … We don’t see the Israelis as a different race. We even call them our cousins because we are similar,” said Shawa.
She remembered sitting with her mother, an elected representative in the Palestinian Legislative Council, the legislature formed under the Oslo Accords in 1996. The accords promised eventual Palestinian statehood, and Shawa witnessed Palestinians governing themselves in a time of hope.
“It was a really democratic debate,” she remembered. “Although Hamas did not get in officially, a lot of their members were in. There were some Islamist-leaning members and Fatah, and also other factions … There was something really special about it.”
She believes Palestinians can regain this shining moment, when they came so close to independence, but even she does not believe the Oslo Accords can be revived.
“The two-state solution is dead. It’s too late for it,” she said.
She also did not believe a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation could happen, something her grandfather once proposed. Nor did she believe Israelis were likely to invite the Palestinians into a unified state encompassing the West Bank and Gaza.
Darwish agreed that for such a “South Africa scenario” to happen, “Israel has to feel it is unsafe, that it will lose everything unless it makes some concession.” And Hassan did not think it was even desirable. “Even the 1.5 million Palestinians [who are Israeli citizens] are third class citizens,” he said.
So what is the solution? US President Joe Biden said he remained committed to a two-state solution.
“Gaza and the West Bank should be reunited under a single governance structure … as we all work toward a two-state solution,” he wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece.
“What I do know is the people really want peace,” said Shawa. “We were not able to communicate this to Israel. This is the main problem.”
Darwish agreed that peace was the unifying factor.
“I would go back tomorrow, with all my children,” he said. “Tomorrow.”