Palestinians forced to flee Rafah as Gazans mark bitter Nakba anniversary

Palestinians on Wednesday marked the anniversary of their expulsion from what is now Israel facing a new mass displacement, as thousands more fled Rafah in the face of a deepening Israeli military operation.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been driven out of the city in southern Gaza, once declared a “safe zone,” since Israel ordered evacuations and sent in ground forces — largely shutting the two main border crossings for an area desperately short of food and fuel.

Defying U.S. pressure, Israel has pursued a campaign it says is focused on Hamas militants, but many Palestinians say the situation in Gaza is now a humanitarian catastrophe like the “Nakba” of 1948, when around 700,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes for the founding of Israel.

“The memory of the Nakba once again returns to our minds. We used to live with this painful memory, mainly because we heard about it from our ancestors, we studied in our schools, and we always browsed the information that talked about it,” Mohamed Garboa, 34, told an NBC News’ crew in Gaza Wednesday after fleeing Rafah to Muwasi, a nearby coastal area where Israel has promised an “expanded humanitarian area” will await people.

“But this time, we are living the Nakba again and witnessing what is happening around us,” he said. “We are suffering once again from the Israeli war machinery. What happened in 1948 is now happening on a larger and more complicated scale,” he added.

Echoing his comments, Umm Mohammed, an 80-year-old who survived the “Nakba,” said there was no “no catastrophe worse” than the one currently unfolding in Gaza.

Palestinians fleeing Rafah ride with their belongings in the back of a truck as they arrive to take shelter in Deir el-Balah in central Gaza on Sunday.AFP – Getty Images

“Our homes have gone, our children have gone, our property has gone, our gold has gone, our incomes have gone — nothing is left, Mohammed said in an interview with Reuters in Rafah on Wednesday. “What is left for us to cry over?”

Protests marking the anniversary of the Nakba have erupted around the world over recent days, calling for a cease-fire to bring the more than seven months of fighting in Gaza to an end.

More than 35,000 people have been killed in the Palestinian enclave since Israel launched its deadly offensive, local health officials say, following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks in which some 1,200 people were killed and around 250 others were taken hostage into Gaza, according to Israeli officials.

Nearly a quarter of Gaza’s population has been displaced anew in just the past week.

Some 450,000 have fled from Rafah since Israel launched its operations in the city on May 6, according to UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees.

“People face constant exhaustion, hunger and fear. Nowhere is safe,” UNRWA said in a post on X on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, in northern Gaza, families have also been displaced by fresh fighting in areas that Israel previously said it had cleared of Hamas’ presence. As of Monday, some 100,000 people had been displaced there, Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the United Nations Secretary-General said in a news briefing that day.

Many have fled to areas in Muwasi and Khan Younis in central Gaza following the Israeli military’s evacuation orders, while others have gone to places like the city of Deir al-Balah and the Nuseirat camp in the north.

According to figures released by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center on Tuesday, there were 3.4 million “new movements” in Gaza in the last quarter of 2023, leaving 1.7 million people internally displaced by the end of the year.

Internal displacement in the enclave contributed to a new record of 75.9 million internally displaced people around the world by the end of 2023, the organization said.  

“In just three months, 83% of the strip’s population was internally displaced,” Vicente Anzellini, global and regional analysis manager at the IDMC, told NBC News in a phone interview. And, he noted: “Many people were told to evacuate to areas that got bombed,” echoing an NBC News investigation highlighting a series of deadly strikes in areas that had explicitly been designated safe zones.

The repeated displacements, Anzellini said, have deepened a growing humanitarian crisis as aid deliveries into the enclave have been far and few between following the closures of both the Rafah and Kerem Shalom crossings last week.

The Israeli military has said the Kerem Shalom crossing was reopened, with an additional passageway, the “Western Erez” crossing, opened in coordination with the U.S., in order to allow aid in. But humanitarian groups maintain that only limited amounts of aid are flowing into the enclave.

alestinian husband and wife driven from their homes by Israeli forces, 1948
The 1948 Palestinian exodus, known in Arabic as the ‘Nakba,’ occurred when some 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in what would become Israel.Universal / Getty Images

Meanwhile, a number of people identified as Israeli settlers could be seen appearing to damage and destroy aid bound for Gaza in video captured on Monday and geolocated by NBC News.

Those scenes drew criticism from Washington, increasingly at public odds with its close ally.

But the Biden administration is moving ahead with more than $1 billion in additional arms and ammunition to Israel, the Associated Press reported.

That’s despite the U.S. seeing recent troop movement suggesting Israel could soon expand its operations in Rafah, which it has repeatedly warned against.

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