How a Family, Amid Israeli Oppression, Survived the Trek From Gaza City to Rafah

‘We are all refugees in our own homeland … snatched out of our own lives’

How a Family, Amid Israeli Oppression, Survived the Trek From Gaza City to Rafah
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines Magazine

My Gaza was known for its two major thoroughfares that connect the north of the strip with the south: Salah al-Din Road, which runs down the middle, and Al-Rasheed Street, which is parallel to the sea. Both roads have spiritual significance to every Gazan. People often say that if you lose your way in Gaza, just find the sea, and then you’ll quickly find your way home. In this way, heading west to Al-Rasheed Street was like a compass to identify your position on the Gazan map and guide you home. Perhaps this is because we feel the sea is the most obvious thing we know as Gazans. Or maybe the sea is simply the only thing that never changes — unlike the ground beneath us that is upended every time there is a war.

Today, the sea will no longer lead you home. The streets of the city have shifted; they have vanished and faded completely. When the waves retreated, the pieces of what once was were left on the sidewalk.

We were forced to leave our home on Nov. 11, driven out by Israel against our will. Our family had managed to survive for 29 horrendous days after Israel ordered the north of the Gaza Strip to evacuate south on Oct. 13. I think Israel can’t stand the idea of Palestinians making their own decisions — part of the danger of constantly living under a brutal siege. History is repeating itself. We are being hunted and forced out of our homes once more, all 2 million of us. Why is destiny choosing us again? Isn’t one Nakba enough?

I have spent my whole life, 20 years now, in Gaza City, which was lovely, generous and glorious; it breaks my heart to write using the past tense. I think about the dreamy existence that my grandparents once lived, before the Nakba, the catastrophe of Palestinian displacement in 1948. They would gather themselves under the shade of a fragrant tree and pick fruit from the low-hanging branch above their head, biting into the sweetness of what their land offered. They told me all about that, and how at midnight, soft bouquets of jasmine would dance through the air, delighting senses with the smell of home. I think to myself that maybe, in another universe where the Nakba never happened, I, too, could have lived such memories.

My grandmother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, forgets mostly everything but never what had happened in 1948 and her life before the displacement. Her father — my great-grandfather — had come to Gaza after he was forced out of his home in al-Sawafir, on the coastal plain northeast of Gaza, when Israel was first established. The Nakba affected not only my ancestors. It is also etched in the consciousness of all the Palestinians who were forced off their lands and dispersed throughout the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and beyond. In a way, the Nakba was a collective destiny we are all forced to live. Destiny usually is the uncontrollable natural flow of events, but when it comes to Palestinians, Israel can draw our fate however it wishes.

Even now, after all these years, my grandmother wakes up each day in her warm home that my grandfather built with his brother in 1972, which holds the delightful memories of her 11 children and her grandchildren, with the hope of returning home to al-Sawafir. When I was growing up, they would often tell me about their rustic life long gone, how pleasant it was before the ominous date of 1948. My great-grandfather was rich, a landowner. He owned lands “as far as the eyes can see and the feet can reach,” he would often say. The lands were planted with oranges, grapes and figs. I often remember the land of sad oranges that the late Ghassan Kanafani once wrote about whenever my grandfather starts talking about his sad oranges and how excited he was for the harvest season.

I’ve always thought deeply of those who were displaced, trying to understand their unbearable loss — no matter how much time goes by, they are still attached to those golden days before everything fell apart. Unlike the older generations, I have lived my whole life in Gaza — and for me, it is home. They, however, are still waiting to return back home, where they will once again live in their small, timeworn neighborhoods and walk the familiar streets where everyone knows one another. It was a life of community and solidarity — whenever there was a wedding or a funeral, the whole neighborhood stood shoulder to shoulder in happiness or grief. But after being displaced and losing everything, my grandparents only found their way back to life through their memories and their unyielding hope to return.

I never thought that one day I would find myself in their position. My grandma always described feeling like a stranger in her own land — and I never imagined it could be me. I thought one Nakba was enough for an afflicted nation. For 76 years, many people and countries across the globe showed us Palestinians solidarity and affection. I had genuine faith that the world wouldn’t leave us alone — displaced, hungry, tortured, bleeding, injured and dead in the darkness.

On the day we were forced into our current displacement, the Israeli tank was at the entrance of our neighborhood. We crouched low so that we wouldn’t get shot by the Israeli sniper’s bullets through the window. The sky and the ground had no mercy on us with countless missiles and shells hunting us from all directions. I can’t get the dreadful roaring sound of the explosions out of my head. Dozens of people on my street were running out of their homes, and we were among them, escaping death but heading into something that is even worse: the refugee camps. It’s a story of resistance that will be worth telling my grandchildren. Just as my grandparents had relayed their ordeal to me, I envision one day telling my grandchildren something like this: “The Israeli tank came to the middle of Gaza, to our neighborhood, specifically to get us out of our homes. But we resisted for 29 days.”

My once-vibrant neighborhood was left in silence with dead bodies on the ground. With a miracle, we made it to the high street. The image of a middle-aged woman at the intersection, weeping over her son’s dead body with a tragic look on her face, tells the story of calamity that a whole nation is witnessing. No one was able to take a step closer to help her as we would get shot in cold blood instantly. We all passed, but she remained next to her son, his innocent blood spilled around her.

That day, the smell of blood everywhere was so suffocating. It was also the day I got my period. I remember feeling sick and dizzy while escaping and running. I wish I had said goodbye to my home in a better way — if I could have just turned around to see my strong home standing one last time — but I feared that the sniper’s treacherous bullets would have ended my life then.

As I recalled all of this, another flashback suddenly stormed my already preoccupied mind. I remembered the silly conversations my family had about what to pack in our bags and how to carry them. We could not drag large suitcases on the treacherous journey. My brother, Khaled, had the winning idea, and I took heed. I wore one backpack on my back and another on my chest, and I carried one plastic bag in each hand. Yes, plastic bags, because we are a family of seven, but we had only nine backpacks. I was lucky to get two of them to pack my belongings.

But two backpacks and two plastic bags weren’t enough to contain everything I owned, everything that had a story I once lived. For the first time I understood how people can become attached to things other than human beings. It was hard to leave my belongings behind.

“Don’t pack much,” my rosy mom said as we were preparing our bags, something we do every time there is an assault. “Just for a short while, maybe a week or less before we’ll be back,” she added.

“I can’t leave my winter coat alone, Mom,” my young sister said in a childish tone.

“It’s November, honey, and we’ll be back before December,” our mother answered.

“Bovvvvvvv!” A thunderous sound jolted me back to the present — my bags fell to the ground as I raised my hands to cover my ears, neck bent. The missile exploded over our heads, its pieces shattering all around. We clung to one another, praying to God to not be killed by the deadly remnants. Some people were injured, others were killed; people were collapsing dead in front of my eyes. I was afraid to cry or to make any sound in case I was heard and targeted. I was waiting for my turn.

“It’s over,” my mom said in a trembling voice while holding her hand over my little sister’s eyes. Her own eyes were brimming with tears, but she tried not to let them spill; she was probably also afraid to cry.

We all were breathing with flutters. Seeing my strong parents gripped with fear for our lives only made me more frightened. “Be strong and stick together,” my father insisted, bracing himself and looking into all of our eyes. “We still have a passage to take.”

We continued running to the unknown.

After 10 minutes of running in panic, fearing being shot, bombarded by raining missiles or shelled by an Israeli tank, we found a car. I had been running so fast that I couldn’t catch my breath, and I was scared my lungs would stop working and that I would die from suffocation. Four empty seats and a brave driver saved our lives. We threw ourselves and our things in the car, a reprieve from running while carrying heavy bags. Our lives — including the driver’s — were in grave danger as Israel has targeted cars since the beginning of its war against us. We could have run all the way from Rimal neighborhood in the middle of Gaza City to Al-Kuwaiti Street south of it. What might push that stranger to risk his life and drive us? I wondered.

The car started moving, and Gaza City started to fade into the background little by little. My tottering head was stuck to the half open window. I was the one chosen to hold the white rag waving out of the window in hopes that we wouldn’t be targeted or killed. My mom assigned me to do this as all my siblings refused to do such a humiliating thing. I wish I had vanished then. Despite the fact that our lives might end at any moment, I opened my eyes wide in an attempt to capture everything about my beloved, beautiful Gaza. I drew in as much air as my lungs could possibly hold. I saw the people of my city for the last time — they all had the same pale gaze on their terrified faces, the exact look that came across my grandmother’s face whenever she remembered the Nakba she lived through in 1948.

We made it to the Al-Kuwaiti roundabout, the farthest point that cars can reach, and thanked our chivalrous driver before getting out of the car. My tight muscles prevented me from straightening my body after having been cramped awkwardly in the car. Al-Kuwaiti roundabout is where all Gazans must gather to start their journey of crossing what Israel has called the “safe passage.”

Tens of thousands of Gazans have crossed that passage along Salah al-Din Road, Gaza’s main street. Israel had taken over Al-Rasheed Street as a way of imposing its control over us — filling it with its tanks, ready to erase Gaza City’s features and make it permanently unrecognizable.

Those who had managed to safely make the journey to the south would share their evacuation stories with residents still in the north, giving invaluable advice. They told us that after getting to Al-Kuwaiti roundabout, a donkey-drawn wagon would lead us to the “safe passage.” I remembered when my grandma was describing her story of displacement, they too were carried on the backs of donkeys. I suddenly realized that I am reliving the exact wretched fate my grandparents once lived — recognizing instantly that I too will be traumatized and attached to my past life for as long as I live, just as my grandparents are.

While we were being transported by a donkey, my thoughts drifted to how, again, these horrible circumstances had brought a sense of sameness to our society, regardless of class, age or gender. Together we lost our worldly possessions: our homes, whether deluxe or humble; our income, whether high or low; and our cars, the luxurious and the rusting. We all were dragged away, uncertain of our future, with the same hazy look on our faces.

We are all refugees in our own homeland, and we have all been snatched out of our own lives. I saw some old school friends I hadn’t seen for years. We looked into each other’s eyes and exchanged tiny fake smiles. We all were aware of the shared feeling of despair that braided us together across circumstance and generation.

Our donkey-drawn wagon stopped, and we disembarked, preparing as best we can for the next leg of our “safe passage.”

“Look straight forward. Hold your ID card in one hand and keep the other one raised. If you drop a bag or anything else, don’t ever think about leaning over to pick it up. Just keep moving forward. Don’t look at the tank or the soldiers, and don’t make a sound. Phones are silent, right?” my mom said, reminding us of the instructions for the hundredth time. People who first went through the “safe passage” were told of these instructions by the soldiers from a far distance; they shared their stories with those who were reluctant to evacuate. My mom was firm with these instructions as, she believed, they would guarantee our survival. We carried our bags and started walking straight down a very long path. There were bombed out homes and rubble on the right, and on the left Israeli soldiers glared down at us from their tanks, which looked like fortresses from their perch atop sandy hills.

The burning sun was centering in the clear-blue, merciless sky. We walked on. Following my mom’s instructions, I held my ID card in my right hand, with my left hand raised, my two plastic bags cutting down toward my aching elbows. Hundreds and hundreds of people were walking with us in a row. It felt like I could hear our hearts pounding together, since we were all together at the closest point to death.

Again, a flood of thoughts: Where are we going? Will we return home again? Or will home just fade into our hopes and dreams like it did for our ancestors? Will we be alive a few seconds from now? I cried the whole way down that long road. We all did, leaving behind a Palestinian trail of tears.

I was exhausted and wanted to collapse under the weight of my baggage. The psychological pain I felt from the displacement came together with my physical pain — my menstrual cramps and weak legs. For a fleeting instant I hated being a woman, and a Palestinian one at that.

While pushing myself forward, I dropped my mother’s gold bracelet. I was scared and didn’t know what to do. Would I get shot if I bent forward to retrieve it? Suddenly, a child was at my side, and he slipped me the bracelet in secret, and I gave him a glimpse of gratitude. I was carrying some of my mother’s gleaming bracelets and a few of her necklaces that are made of pure gold. She had distributed the gold and some money among me and my three sisters, thinking that Israeli soldiers wouldn’t take anything off of girls on this so-called safe passage. This jewelry represents a lifetime of my parents’ savings. My sisters and I were lucky, but other girls were not. Some were asked by Israeli soldiers who towered over us to drop all belongings on the ground and keep walking.

The Israeli soldiers were giving us instructions from a distance — either to stop or to move on. They often described someone’s clothes if they wanted them to approach the tank. I flashed a quick glance and saw 10 or more men who had been forced to sit around the tank with their hands held behind their heads. Those were the human shields, placed there by Israeli soldiers after being questioned, tortured, beaten, forced to confess to crimes they did not commit and left there naked and bleeding. We have become all too familiar with these tactics. News travels fast in Gaza.

I observed the people around me. A man carried his elderly and disabled mom in his strong but tired arms. A little boy was trying to persuade his dog not to bark because it wasn’t the time for play. A tense mother was trying to quiet her newborn baby. I suddenly tripped on a stone and cut my leg, but my fresh wound didn’t ache. It hurt a little, but just barely. Then I felt the sharp sting of the fresh air filling the open wound as we moved forward. It was my only chance to let my body cry.

My tired hands were weakening. I felt that I couldn’t take another step with my heavy burden and that I would fall apart at any moment. We were allowed to look down, above or forward. The sun was blazing, launching flaming rays, as if nature were taking revenge. The sound of my grandma’s voice telling me how harsh the weather is on refugees echoed through my ears.

I hardly drew my breath and I was parched. I looked down and saw that the wound on my leg was bleeding. All at once, I noticed that there were images of people scattered across the ground. I saw that they were ID cards. Why had they been thrown aside? What fate had met their holders? They were everywhere.

We were trying to stick together as much as possible. My older sister kept reminding my eldest brother to stay to the right side since the soldiers were on our left. We were driven in herds, hundreds and hundreds of Palestinians were massed in the “safe passage” leaving our homes, livelihoods and dreams behind — fleeing south toward false promises of safety and peace. The soldiers asked us to stop, and we did. My brother, Khaled, whispered to my sister, Nour, that he would drop a bag on the ground and she had to take it. He was holding at least nine plastic bags. When we were asked to start walking again, Nour picked up his bag from the ground, trying to do so as subtly as possible so as not to attract the attention of Israeli soldiers.

All the time I was walking, I was trying to process the sheer scale of destruction, represented by the mounds of rubble right next to us. Countless buildings had been demolished in the blink of an eye: homes, stores, clinics and schools. Gaza City had been reduced to devastated homes and hollow streets filled with dangerous and volatile stones from the bombings. My once-vibrant city was now silent and hollow — a dwelling place for fierce winds and the longing of its people peeled away from it.

Again, we were commanded to stop walking, and we did so. A weeping sound rose from among us, followed quickly by the smell of blood.

“Shaheed, shaheed,” cried a trembling voice, repeating the Arabic word for martyr. I closed my heavy eyes after I lost my temper and started sobbing in a louder voice. I was frightened to see the dead body, and I was frightened to see the other human body parts torn away and scattered on the sidewalk. Even on our way to survive, on our “safe passage,” death hovered all around.

A martyr once was a human, exactly like me, you and any other person on this planet. A martyr once had a head, organs and a pulsing heart — a body — not many torn pieces and left on the sidewalk. A martyr once had a pure soul and undying dreams. Martyrs had homes they once lived in, trees they planted and took care of, families that are still waiting for them to return. I wished I were a martyr then.

I opened my eyes while they were full of tears, and I couldn’t see anything. I found myself separated from my family. My eyes cleared and I looked left and right, searching for my sisters. “Haya!!! Hurry up,” I heard the older one, Ruba, whisper in my direction. I asked her about our mother, who had been carrying more than her capacity. “They are all behind us because Mom fell down and people had to help her get back onto her feet,” she explained. This only worried me more, and I longed to turn back and look at her, but I was afraid.

Ruba was walking speedily as if it were a race she could win. She looked tough and tenacious holding her bags, unlike me, crying and tired of the load. I was so emotional while crossing the passage, while she was strong. An Israeli tank kept moving slowly alongside us. I noticed some bags thrown and left on the ground. Maybe their owners dropped them and feared to take them, or maybe they were commanded to drop their belongings and leave them behind.

A sound suddenly came from the tank in accented, prosaic Arabic, asking us to stop.

“The man with the red shirt and the cap! Approach the tank!” barked an Israeli soldier from his tank. The man let go of his son’s tiny hand, which he had been tightly grasping. He moved toward the tank, and the rest of us were ordered to continue walking. I will never know what happened to that man or his son.

I kept changing the way I carried the bags to find ease, but all in vain. I was sick of the load; we all were. I saw four men holding their old mother on a blanket they were clutching from the corners. They were sweating while the inexorable sun refused to fade. A man ahead of me was carrying his daughter on his shoulders with his hands full of bags. His daughter was crying; he threw everything in his hands down to the gluttonous ground and took his baby girl between his arms.

I wished for a moment to be a young child or a gray-haired and infirm woman, so that maybe I wouldn’t remember the harsh fate I have been through. And then I immediately realized how silly these wishes were. But I loathed being aware of everything around me. It broke my heart when I thought of my grandmother back up north. My uncle was supposed to evacuate her once he found a wheelchair, which he couldn’t find. So my grandmother was evacuated on a wagon. Once again, she was forced to leave her home. Will she also not be able to return? In one lifetime, must she endure two dreaded Nakbas?

It seemed that we eventually crossed the passage when the sand hills on our left were barren with no more Israeli soldiers and tanks observing us, ready to end our lives at any moment. I collapsed as all Gazans did. I didn’t have any power left to take another step while holding my bags. I lowered my stiff hands after having kept them raised for three hours. I desperately looked back, trying to spot my mother and the rest of my family. I searched for them in the faces of people, but I couldn’t see any of them anywhere. I panicked, dark thoughts flooding my terrified mind. What if they took my brother? What if my mother fell again and no one helped her up? What if we were separated forever? What if they never emerged from the endless rows of people?

I was sitting on the ground with my bags while Ruba was still standing. A boy on his bike suddenly stopped and gave us water and some dates. He offered help since our dreadful journey was not over yet. We still had many miles to walk in the heat. I drank every drop of water from that bottle, but I was still thirsty. People around us seemed to find the strength to keep going, continuing to carry their bags to the end of Salah al-Din Road. My family finally appeared from afar.

We all sat down on the sidewalk with our eyes full of tears — we had made it through the “safe passage,” but our new reality was starting to settle in our minds: We might never be able to return home again. Ever. My mom seemed the most affected by this. She appeared tired and desperate. We all were.

I was surprised to see our neighbors walking toward us empty-handed. Their house was bombed over their heads — they were not able to salvage anything except their lives. We talked a little about our neighborhood, but they were hardly able to muster the strength to speak. They offered support even though they were the ones who needed it. Despite the fact that they came from the rubble, they seemed strong. They helped us carry our belongings, and we moved forward together.

My pain started peaking. Earlier that day, when I got my period in the morning, I was crying. I had a nagging feeling that we would be leaving our home. I went through our family meds and took an aspirin to calm my cramps. But it started to wear off, and my legs couldn’t carry me anymore. The people of the south were waiting for us with their bikes and wagons. I threw myself on a carriage, pain overtaking my tired body. Khaled, Ruba and Nour refused to take the carriage because they were too proud to be dragged by a donkey. They walked alongside, while my parents, my little sister Dina and I were on the carriage. Local residents greeted us with words of solidarity and sympathy. They offered water, food and hospitality, opening their homes for us.

Finally, we reached the end of Salah al-Din Road after walking another 4 miles. We had made it to the south, where it was believed to be safe and peaceful. The Bureij entrance leading to the first camp on the other side of the passage was more crowded than ever. All of a sudden, we saw my uncle’s family sitting on the sidewalk. We had been separated from each other since being forced to leave our homes in the same building that my grandfather constructed with his brother in 1972. We rushed toward them and saw that they were sobbing.

“Belal and Hamza were taken from the passage,” cried their eldest brother in a desperate voice. We all wept at once. My cousins — 20-year-old Belal is my age and 26-year-old Hamza my brother’s age — were like brothers to us. We had shared memories our whole lives, and for my brother, the bond was particularly tight. When Khaled heard the news, he fell apart and cried like a child. We were all afraid for them and for us — we feared we would never see them again. How could my uncle’s weak heart bear the loss of his sons?

We split up into two taxis for the drive to Rafah in the deep south of the strip. We were told that it’s safer to take shelter in facilities run by UNRWA, the United Nations’ agency for Palestinian refugees. In the midst of war, we were all looking for safety. In the car, we were starving, so my mom gave us some chocolates. I didn’t know then that it would be the last piece of chocolate I would have in seven months or maybe more. I laid my head on my mother’s warm and familiar shoulder while I was flooded with thoughts. I let the gracious breezes touch my resigned face with my eyes closed in an effort to find some tranquility in the chaos.

When we arrived in Rafah, it was worse than I could have ever imagined. It lacked even the basic human necessities. I thought everything would be fine if we just made it to Rafah. I thought it was the final destination. I collapsed for the hundredth time that day. Everyone was rushing to find shelter since the sun was about to set. I opened my cellphone and found a very weak signal but enough to receive a call from my aunt, who had evacuated to al-Nuseirat refugee camp nearby. I heard her voice and couldn’t hold back my tears. I was gasping for air and choking on those tears while she tried to console me. People were staring at me while I was having a nervous breakdown. My aunt told me that she had been through the same situation; she told me I would get used to the situation soon. But I never did. I had a beautiful white home. Why should I have to look for shelter?

My father’s maternal relatives in Deir al-Balah offered us a place to stay in their home. Since it was 5 p.m., it was very difficult to find a ride. Israel becomes more savage when it gets dark. Twelve of us squeezed into a seven-seat vehicle, chasing what was left of the sunlight. The driver took the sea road. I leaned my heavy head against the open window.

I saw the sea on my left and countless green breathing trees on my right. For a moment, I thought I got to heaven. The sea was moving with us, refusing to leave us alone. Foaming waves were progressing and retreating, just as they always have. I closed my eyes with ease and dreamed of home.

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