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Palestinians Fear Another Exodus Is on the Horizon: 'They Would Rather Die in Gaza Than Move'

Palestinians mourn the body of a young man
Anas-Mohammed / Shutterstock

Palestinians mourn the body of a young man, who was shot dead by Israeli forces, in the southern Gaza Strip, on September 20, 2023.

Israel’s thousands of punishing airstrikes and evacuation ordders have raised the fear of history repeating itself – of another Nakba displacing and slaughtering Palestinians.

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Editor's note: A version of this story appears in CNN’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.

Amman, Jordan (CNN) — Through the narrow streets of the Jabal Al-Hussein refugee camp in the Jordanian capital Amman, the mood is clear.

“Palestine! No America, No America… Palestine,” a local fruit seller shouts amid the market crowds.

Established more than seventy years ago by the United Nations, the community is now home to more than 30,000 Palestinian refugees, descendants of some of the more than 700,000 who were expelled or fled their homes in what is now Israel following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Israelis call it the War of Independence. To Arabs, that event is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe.

Families in this camp, now a built-up urban community, know exile all too well, denied the right to return to their ancestral homes in what is now Israel. According to the United Nations, there are now some 5.9 million Palestinian refugees worldwide, most of them descendants of that 1948 generation of exiles.

These refugees say it is a life sentence of separation from family, friends, and their homeland. And for those with loved ones still in Gaza, they say it is a sentence to the cruelest form of anguish.

Israel launched a massive air offensive on the enclave that is home to more than two million Palestinians after Hamas militants from Gaza killed 1,400 people in a brazen attack inside Israel on October 7, and kidnapped more than 200.

Camp resident Abdel-Munim Dababsheh, 49, says his family moved to Jordan after the 1967 war, when Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan and Gaza from Egypt. He says he left behind most of his family.

He has lost several family members in successive Israeli wars in Gaza, he says. His mother was killed in 2009 and his sister in 2012, and his aunt and oldest daughter died in the latest round of Israeli airstrikes. “At any given moment, I could get a phone call telling me that my sister and her children have also been killed.

At least 2,789 Palestinian civilians were killed in Gaza in the past 15 years, according to the United Nations, often in operations Israel says were launched to target Hamas and other militant groups.

The overall death toll in Gaza from the current conflict is now at more than 5,000, according to Palestinian health authorities in the Hamas-run enclave, just over two weeks since Israel launched its relentless air campaign.

Despite the rising civilian death toll and the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation, Israel has vowed to intensify its aerial bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip, and expand it to a multi-pronged operation in the coming days, as it says it seeks to wipe out Hamas, which has been designated by Israel, the European Union and the US as a terrorist organization.

And with Israel’s thousands of punishing strikes, the fear of history repeating itself – of another Nakba – is being felt across the region.

While Israel has not said it aims to evict Gazans to Egypt or elsewhere, fears of such prospects arose after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) asked Gazans to evacuate the strip’s north and move southwards, as their military operation continued, as well as after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US was in talks with Egypt and Israel to establish a humanitarian corridor in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula for Americans and other civilians fleeing Gaza.

On Sunday, Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Israel has “absolutely no intent” to run Gaza.

But the prospect of hundreds of thousands more Palestinians being forcibly displaced to neighboring countries, or even further afield, is being condemned across the Arab world.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said last week that a transfer of Palestinians from Gaza would likely be followed by a similar “expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank to Jordan.” Jordan’s foreign minister later said such a move would be considered a declaration of “war.”

Commentators on Arab media outlets have warned that Israel may be planning to de-populate the Gaza Strip of Palestinians and even re-occupy it.

‘Collective shame’

But some Palestinians would rather die than be made refugees once again.

“Of course, no one wants to go to Egypt. It’s impossible. My relatives refuse it, I refuse it. This is displacement. Gaza is their home. They will stay there even if it means being wiped out by an airstrike,” Dababsheh says of his relatives.

Palestinians, he says, won’t accept being displaced this time. “The new generation will not allow it,” he says. “They put their foot down.”

Of Gaza’s more than 2 million people, 1.7 million are refugees, according to UNRWA.

“The Israelis were always adamant about no return of refugees, and that’s why the Palestinians cling to… the right of return,” Jordanian Senator Mustafa Hamarneh says, adding that 75 years later, the Arab world has still not recovered from the loss of the Palestinian homeland.

“I don’t think the West realizes the depth of the collective shame we feel as a result of 1948 and the sense of injustice that has been inflicted upon us that we need to correct this. There is a very deep sense of shame, that what happened to us in 1948 shouldn’t have happened,” Hamarneh says. “Any new mass eviction of Palestinian refugees, for us, is a repeat of 1948.”

Israeli officials have said they have “no interest” in reoccupying Gaza. Israel unilaterally withdrew its troops from the territory and pulled out Jewish settlers in 2005.

The struggle of the Palestinians is felt especially keenly in Jordan, where more than half of the population is either Palestinian or of Palestinian descent – including more than two million Palestinian refugees.

But that passion for the Palestinian cause resonates across the Arab world that is home to more than 450 million people.

In a fiery exchange with CNN’s Clarissa Ward at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza that went viral on social media last week, an Egyptian activist shouted that despite attempts to “divide” Arabs, “we stand with the Palestinians, and we stand with Arabs.”

The activist, Rahma Zein, was one of many Arabs around the region impassioned by the war, bloody images from which have made their way to almost every Arab news channel and social media platform.

For more than two weeks now, protests in solidarity with the Palestinians have erupted in countries including Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Iraq, Yemen, Kuwait, and Iran. Hundreds of thousands have also taken to the streets of several European capitals and US cities, all calling for an end to Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza strip, and to the 17-year blockade of the territory.

Young people from across the Arab world have chanted the very same rallying cries their parents and grandparents chanted before them. This is a multi-generational cause which, more than 75 years since the dispossession of the Palestinians, has not diminished in salience in the region.

“For much of the Arab world, the question of Palestine represents the last colonized Arab people trying to gain their freedom,” said H.A. Hellyer, an international security studies expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Royal United Services Institute in London.

While Arab states have tended to focus on problems closer to home in recent years, the latest war “has driven the Palestine question back onto the agenda,” he said.

For many protesters, the demonstrations are not an expression of support for Hamas, nor an expression of indifference to the killing of Israeli civilians. Many protesters say they believe this crisis began long before the October 7 attacks, citing what they say is decades-long Israeli oppression of the Palestinians.

In the Iraqi capital Baghdad, which saw hundreds of protesters take to the streets over the weekend, 45-year-old Ahmed El-Saied said that in recent years Western governments compelled Arab states and their populations to forget the Palestinian issue, especially as Arabs grappled with “internal and sectarian conflicts.”

In Egypt, where mass protests were allowed Friday for the first time in a decade, Alya, who took part in the protest, said that the recent wave of Arab normalization deals with Israel brought on a sense of “defeatism.”

“What we saw after October 7, however, was a shocking reminder to ourselves and the world that actually, this entire situation hasn’t been normalized,” said Alya, who only gave her first name due to fear of reprisal from the authorities.

‘They would rather die in Gaza than move’

Analysts say Arab fears of another displacement of Palestinians are particularly heightened due to inflammatory rhetoric that has come from some members of Israel’s right-wing government in the past.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich in 2017, as a member of parliament, wrote in an essay that emigration of Palestinians should be encouraged and incentivized, adding that the notion that emigration is cruel is “absurd.” The process, he argued, should not be “a cruel expulsion” but be done in a manner that is “planned, willing, and based on a desire for a better life.”

More recently, he caused an outcry in March after calling for the Palestinian village of Huwara to be “erased” following the murder of two Israeli settlers in the town in a Palestinian attack, which led to revenge rampages by Israeli settlers that one of Israel’s top military generals later called a “pogrom.”

Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir was convicted of anti-Arab racism by an Israeli court decades before joining the government and was once a follower of Meir Kahane, a Jewish fanatic who openly called for the expulsion of Palestinians. Ben Gvir’s wife, Ayala Nimrodi, has been cited as saying she wishes to “get rid of” the Palestinians.

When asked about the rhetoric of his right-wing coalition partners, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said it is his hands that are “on the wheel.”

Hellyer said that this kind of rhetoric has given Arabs good reason to fear that the expulsion of Palestinians may indeed be on the table.

“I don’t think it’s unusual [that] many in the Arab world would take them seriously at their word, especially considering the reality that in every previous situation where Palestinians left Palestinian territory, they were never allowed to go back,” Hellyer said.

Hanya Sabawi, a Palestinian who left Gaza as an infant but whose family remain in the enclave, told CNN she doesn’t know whether her family will have homes to go back to.

“And the biggest fear of course, is that they’re going to be evacuated and turned into refugees. This is what everyone is now openly talking about, as if they didn’t matter,” she said. “They don’t want to move. They would rather die in Gaza than move.”

CNN’s Claudia Otto and Aqeel Najim contributed to this report.

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