Souad Al-Alem was one of the roughly 10,000 people forced to flee the Palestinian town of al-Majdal. It was 1948, she was a young woman and Israel’s troops were approaching the community during the Arab-Israeli war in what is now part of the Israeli city of Ashkelon.
Now in her 90s and living in Gaza, Al-Alem has been forced to run again.
On October 7, Hamas launched a deadly terror attack against Israel from Gaza, firing thousands of rockets, going on a bloody rampage that killed 1,400 people and taking more than 220 hostage. In retaliation, the Israel Defence Forces have been conducting a massive bombardment campaign against what it says are Hamas targets in Gaza. More than 6,850 Palestinians have been killed as a result of these strikes, according to information from Hamas-controlled health authorities in Gaza and published by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah.
Al-Alem is one of the hundreds of thousands of civilians caught up in the war.
Just 10 miles north of the Gaza border, not much remains of al-Majdal. Once a buzzing market place known for textile manufacturing, al-Majdal was reduced to rubble after the 1948/49 war.
All of its houses are long gone, replaced with modern Israeli buildings that are now part of Ashkelon. Only the old mosque remains standing. Nearby, an empty, overgrown field gives a hint of the size of the former town.
Some 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled their homes following the 1948/49 war, representing at least 80 percent of Arabs living in what became Israel. Like Al-Alem, more than half of those who live in Gaza today are either refugees or their direct descendants.
Many of those displaced in 1948 thought that they’d be back home in a few days or weeks. But Israel has never allowed them to return and many have lived in poverty ever since. According to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), more than 80% of people in Gaza live in poverty now.
Palestinians call that episode the Nakba, the Arabic word for catastrophe.
“I lived the Nakba of 1948 and now I am living the Nakba of 2023,” Al-Alem said, sitting in a tent in a makeshift refugee camp in Khan Younis in southern Gaza. “This second one is worse,” she added. She said she fled her home amid intense bombing more than 10 days ago and said she hasn’t had a proper meal or bath since then. As a diabetic, she said she was struggling without regular meals and access to her usual medication.
“There nothing to use for cleaning our faces and hands and ourselves. We can’t wash or do anything. There is nothing. There were toilets, now there aren’t any. When we go to toilets, they are dirty because too many people are using them. I stopped going to them,” she said.
While most of the former Arab villages and towns are long gone, the collective memory lives on.
“It’s amazing how the Palestinians keep those memories alive. Most of them in the traditional way, from stories told by their fathers and grandfathers,” said Umar al-Ghubari, a Palestinian educator who works for Zochrot.
A Tel Aviv-based NGO, Zochrot was originally formed by a group of Israeli Jews with a goal to “promote acknowledgement, responsibility and accountability” for the emptied Palestinian villages and campaign for the right of return of these communities.
The first step is to spread awareness, al-Ghubari said. Zochrot operates in Hebrew, publishing information materials, organizing tours and collecting testimonies.
Al-Ghubari acknowledges that Zochrot’s work runs counter to the mainstream Israeli narrative, which tends to gloss over the issue of Palestinian expulsions during the war, preferring to highlight the contentious idea that the desert only started ‘blooming’ once Israel was founded.
Earlier this year, Israel and its allies including the United States and other Western nations skipped the first ever event at the United Nations marking the 75th anniversary of the Nakba – coinciding with the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding.
The Israeli government rejects Nakba commemorations, with Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan saying they “only serve to demonize Israel and further push away any chance for reconciliation.”
Al-Ghubari said that one of Zochrot’s missions is to make Israeli people more aware of the history, however uncomfortable it is.
But it’s hard going, he said. Zochrot has in the past tried to install information signs at the sites of the destroyed villages.
“We put signs up in these locations, but unfortunately, these signs would be removed almost immediately within few hours of few days because some Israelis when they come to that place, they don’t like the idea of that information being there,” he said. Al-Ghubari does not know who took the signs down.
No choice but to leave
Most people who live in Gaza today still identify as Palestinian refugees and refer to the towns and villages their ancestors were forced to flee as their homes – even if their families have now lived in the enclave for several generations.
In 1967, Israel captured Gaza during the Six-Day War with Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and held it for nearly 40 years before withdrawing troops and Israelis settlers in 2005.
After Hamas took power inside the enclave two years later, Israel and Egypt, which continued to have full control over entry and exit points to the enclave, including the sea, imposed a blockade that critics say transformed it into “the world’s largest open-air prison.”