DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Some fled home with suitcases jammed with clothes and heirlooms and photographs. Some left with stacks of foam mattresses tied to car roofs. They took buses and vans and cars and carts pulled by donkeys.
Many walked. Many had nothing with them but exhausted family members trudging through streets littered with rubble. All of them were trying to get to safety.
“We left the house without food, without water and without clothes,” said Mohammad Hillis, sitting at a wooden school desk scarred by generations of students in a makeshift refugee camp in central Gaza. “We left without taking anything with us.”
He said about 150 people lived in his building in their northern Gaza town. All left after clouds of Israeli leaflets began dropping from the sky, warning civilians to flee the north within 24 hours.
“Evacuate south for your own safety and the safety of your families and distance yourself from Hamas terrorists who are using you as human shields,” an Israeli statement said. It warned that Israeli forces would “operate significantly” in northern Gaza in the coming days, an apparent reference to an expected land offensive being prepared one week after Hamas’ bloody, carefully planned attack on Israel.
The leaflets fueled the fear and chaos already raging in Gaza, which has faced relentless Israeli airstrikes since the attack.
In just 12 hours after the first Israeli warnings, hundreds of thousands of people had either taken to the roads or been forced from their homes by the airstrikes.
But many chose to stay and face the looming invasion. Some said there was simply no safe place to go in the south, which was far from their friends and relatives. Many also feared the dangers on the roads that Israel said could be used as evacuation routes, but which had been targeted several times by Israeli airstrikes.
Some sought shelter in places that they hoped would not be Israeli targets.
Medical officials say an estimated 35,000 have crammed into the grounds of Gaza City’s main hospital, hoping for refuge.
The scale of the evacuation order is vast, and perhaps simply impossible.
The order covers an area of 1.1 million residents, or about half the territory’s population. The U.N. and aid workers have warned that the mass exodus would be catastrophic.
Social media was flooded with calls for help.
“If there is a car, bus, or anything nearby that will take us from Gaza to Rafah, please contact me” a Gaza City doctor pleaded on Facebook.
On Friday, Haifa Khamis al-Shurafa wondered what her 82-year-old father was thinking as they prepared to flee for the second time in a week.
Her father, who is stricken with Parkinson’s and unable to speak, had borne witness to the 1948 Nakba, or “catastrophe,” the term Palestinians use to describe their mass displacement when Israel was founded.
As she helped him into a car in Gaza City, along with the family of seven’s most important possessions in two suitcases, she felt acutely that history was repeating itself.
Her father was 6 years old when he and his family were displaced from what is now the Israeli city of Beersheba.
“They left their shops and homes,” she said later Friday, after reaching Deir al-Balah, a central Gaza city that is south of the zone where Israel had ordered the evacuation. “Now, my father is surrounded by his children and is seeing that we have to leave again, that we have to live this again.”
Like many people in Gaza, Shurafa grew up hearing stories about 1948, and how so many Palestinians were never able to return home. Today, that fuels suspicions about whether Israel has any intention to allow Gaza residents to return to their homes.
Earlier this week, Al-Shurafa, a 42-year-old architect married to a dentist, fled her upscale Gaza City neighborhood after her apartment was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike.
They had just minutes to gather their children and pack some important documents and clothes before the five-story building was destroyed, bringing down two other buildings.
“That was the worst moment of my life, the moment we had to leave, we had leave our memories, our dreams, my dreams, the house that we built together,” she said. “We are not young anymore, that was our entire life savings.”
Asked how she was coping, she nearly cried.
“Please don’t ask me how I feel,” she said. “That is the worst feeling I have ever felt or will ever feel.”
“It was the feeling of anguish, of humiliation, of injustice, of abandonment,” she said.
The family stayed a few days in a temporary home she shared with her in-laws, then fled again Friday to Deir al-Balah after Israel announced the evacuation order.
As night fell, she could hear the sounds of distant shelling. Israel has cut off nearly all electricity to the Gaza Strip, and the family was left in darkness.
“We don’t deserve this,” she said. “We didn’t kill anyone.”
Kullab reported from Baghdad.