Palestinian Rashida al-Malalha, 65, never imagined she would become displaced from her refugee camp.
The mother-of-six was forced to flee her house in Shouka, a remote area in the south of the Gaza Strip, after Israeli troops took over the neighbouring Gaza Airport in late July to use it as a base from which to launch military operations in the rest of the Gaza Strip.
“The Israeli army warned us that we must leave our houses as soon as possible because they were going to enter the area and reoccupy it together with Gaza Airport,” said al-Malalha.
Shouka, east of Rafah, is inhabited by several thousand Palestinians, including more than 100 refugee families.
A Palestinian refugee is defined by the United Nations as a person whose “normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict,” and their descendants, regardless of whether they reside in areas designated as “refugee camps” or in established, permanent communities.
The majority of the Gaza Strip’s 1.4 million Palestinian inhabitants are direct descendants of refugees who fled or were expelled from Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
The current Israeli military operation in Gaza began after an Israeli soldier was captured by Palestinian militants on 25 June. Israeli incursions since then, which have taken place on three occasions, have displaced more than 2,000 Palestinians, according to the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).
“Shouka has been the location of repeated Israeli Defense Force (IDF) incursions since June. Most of the people there have been evacuated on each of the three occasions that the IDF has gone in,” said John Ging, UNRWA’s Director of Operations in Gaza.
“We have provided them with shelter in our schools in Rafah. We had more than 2,000 in and we have had to open the schools three times. They may stay for a week or so and then they go back,” he said.
Just want to go home
The Shouka residents, most of whom are Bedouins [nomadic Arab tribes people], are grateful to UNRWA - but they want to return home.
“They provided us with covers, and put each family in a classroom. They promised us other assistance, but all we want now is to return to our homes. We cannot stay in this school forever,” said Rashida, who added that she had left her eight goats and a camel behind.
Sitting in a classroom holding her baby, Fatema, a 26-year-old Palestinian Bedouin said, “I ran from home with my husband and seven children. We were so scared by the sound of the shelling. We left home barefoot. We fled because we don’t want our children to get killed.”
Another refugee, Ni’man al-Tarabeen, 53, whose family slept on stairs in the school, said, “I don’t know if my house was demolished or my property was stolen. I even left the door open because we were in a hurry. We left without thinking.”
By 1 September, about 300 Palestinians were still being accommodated by UNRWA because of the continued IDF presence in Gaza Airport.
“We have found them renting accommodation elsewhere because on Saturday [2 September] we had to open our schools for the new school year. This will continue until the end of the IDF operation,” said Ging.
Ging told IRIN that many of the Palestinians’ homes in Shouka had been damaged in the IDF operation there. He said there was a question mark over whether the cost to civilians of the IDF’s operations in Gaza was justified.
“The [UN] Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said there is a need for accountability for the IDF’s actions, particularly those against civilians. We on the ground are saying that the cost to civilians, the death, the destruction of livelihoods, is massive. The question is there - is this proportionate?” asked Ging.
The IDF denied that any Palestinians were still displaced from its operations in Shouka.
Shlomo Dror, Israeli spokesperson for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, told IRIN, “We do not know that people have not been able to go back to their homes. We don’t even know that people were forced to leave in the first place. We deny this information.”
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