Overnight, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered one million Palestinians in the north of Gaza to immediately evacuate, announcing a policy of mass displacement and likely gearing up for a ground invasion that would inevitably massacre more civilians. Israeli forces continue to bombard Gaza with air strikes that have killed at least 1,800 (including almost 600 children), wounded more than 7,000, and displaced around half a million Palestinians amid widespread accusations of war crimes.
In what amounts to collective punishment against Palestinian civilians for the horrific October 7 attacks, Israel has imposed a total siege on Gaza, blocking humanitarian aid and starving the strip of food, water, energy, and medicine. For seven days, amid mounting fears of ethnic cleansing, Israel has bombarded civilian areas, massacring entire families and razing whole neighborhoods, including the relentless bombing of schools, hospitals, and mosques. Israel’s military experts boast that Israel has dropped more bombs in six days than the United States dropped in Afghanistan in a year.
Exterminationist rhetoric is pouring from the upper echelons of the Israeli government. IDF chief Herzi Halevi warned that “Gaza will never look the same again.” Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant said, “We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.”
An Israeli lawmaker called for “a second Nakba” (the first being the mass displacement of Palestinians following Israel’s founding) that would “overshadow that of 1948.” Another Knesset member demanded that Israel attack Gaza with nuclear weapons. Both are from Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Gaza is not a state at war but the largest refugee camp on earth. Squeezed in a tiny sliver of land (1.3 percent of Palestine), the majority of its two million people live in cramped refugee camps, most of which have been in existence for over seven decades.
The tragic irony is that the refugees in Gaza now being bombed and displaced were created in the heat of war by Israel itself seventy-five years ago.
At Israel’s founding, 750,000 Palestinians were forced to flee their homes, becoming lifetime refugees. Nearly 250,000 of those uprooted flooded into Gaza, tripling its population overnight and rendering it a colossal refugee camp squashed between desert and sea. Providing shelter to the displaced inhabitants of 250 razed Palestinian towns and villages, Gaza became a Noah’s ark for Palestine after the Nakba.
Most of the refugees who arrived in Gaza came from towns and villages in central and southern Palestine and from northern parts as far as Galilee. But those from villages around Gaza had to endure the tragedy of being displaced within sight of their lost lands and homes.
Israel’s founders, including David Ben-Gurion, foresaw the risk of concentrating tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees in a coastal strip straddled between the Negev and Sinai deserts with no real way out and no hope for escape or dispersion. Fearing the spectacle of “waves of refugees marching on Israel from Gaza,” Israel attempted to solve the crisis by wiping it out.
And it wasted no time. Israel conducted a series of massacres that the Red Cross would describe as “scenes of horror.” In January 1949, with the bloody memory of the Nakba still fresh in Gaza, Israeli forces bombed food distribution centers in Deir al-Balah and Khan Yunis at peak hours, killing over two hundred Palestinians. Those refugees who attempted to return to their homes, labeled by Israel as “infiltrators,” were routinely shot on sight by Israeli soldiers.
Every year or so after the Nakba, Israeli forces would invade Gaza to remind its refugees that displacement was not the end of their suffering.
In August 1953, an Israeli military unit, led by Ariel Sharon, the future prime minister of Israel, invaded the Bureij refugee camp and killed some fifty people in their beds. According to UN officials, Israeli forces threw bombs through the windows of huts where Palestinian refugees were sleeping and shot at those who tried to flee. The massacre was described by a UN commission as an “appalling case of deliberate mass murder” and part of a wider Israeli campaign against the refugee camps in Gaza.
In November 1956, beginning its first occupation of Gaza, Israel invaded the territory by launching military raids on its refugee camps. Israeli soldiers entered Khan Yunis and collected all adult males from their homes and shot them at their doorsteps and in the streets, killing 520 people. The loss of life was so appalling that the head of the UN observer mission in Gaza warned that Israel’s massacres there intended to get rid of the refugee population. That year, he told Israeli officials in Gaza: “You have captured the strip and its population, including the refugees. Very well, keep the strip and its population, but you must also settle the refugees that you have taken with the strip, and whom you drove from their homes eight years ago.”
Even Israeli military leaders like Moshe Dayan were forced to admit that Israel was sowing the seeds of violence in Gaza. He confessed that year: “What can we say against their terrible hatred of us? For eight years, they have sat in the refugee camps of Gaza and have watched how, before their very eyes, we have turned their lands and villages, where they and their forefathers dwelled, into our home.”
Over the next seven decades, Israel would subject Gaza to a violent series of military invasions and occupations, raids and offenses, military incursions and administrations, bombing campaigns and air strikes, repeated massacres and mass displacements, and a yearslong blockade that is still in place. Israeli leaders, notably Dayan and Levi Eshkol, even contemplated transferring Gaza refugees to the West Bank or Sinai, or Iraq, or an Arab country in North Africa (the Libyan Operation). They even hatched a secret plan, the “Moshe Dayan plan,” to transfer Gaza refugees to Latin America by air.
Meanwhile, the refugees of Gaza had to suffer the horrifying fate of living under the yoke of the very forces that had uprooted them decades earlier. Bombarded, under siege, and trapped in an iron cage fashioned by Israel, the refugees of Gaza have come to fathom the depth of their tragedy: there is one thing worse than being displaced, and that is not being able to leave. Many still feared that leaving would amount to a second Nakba.
In this nightmarish environment, with democratic channels for resistance closed off, Gaza became a breeding ground for Palestinian militant groups. While many in the resistance movement still espoused nonviolent struggle, groups like the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas also emerged, founded by a handicapped Palestinian clerk from Gaza during the first intifada.
In 2005, during the second intifada, and after nearly four decades of protracted occupation (since 1967), Israel officially withdrew its forces from Gaza. Israel’s pullout made the refugee population an easy target for its military incursions, with entire sections of the camps declared no-go areas for the Israeli patrols. Israel continued to control Gaza by land, air, and sea, viewing the impoverished enclave as a security threat of “existential” proportions that required disproportionate force, routinely subjecting Gaza to collective punishment.
In the five wars it has waged on Gaza since the blockade, Israel has killed thousands Palestinians while displacing hundreds of thousands of others. In summer 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, Israeli forces slaughtered over two thousand Palestinians in Gaza, most of them civilians.
And now Israel is preparing to escalate its already deadly assault to unprecedented proportions, an unconscionable, vicious attack on permanent refugees. As Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote in a Twitter message this morning, “Humanity is at stake. Nearly half are children. We must halt this.”