House keys have symbolic meaning for Gaza families repeatedly displaced by war

MWASHI, Gaza Strip (AP) — Hassan Nofal has keys to two houses on his key ring. One is his grandparents’ house in what is now southern Israel, where Nofal says his family used to live. Driven out by Israeli forces in 1948 And they could never return there.

The other is Nofal’s home in northern Gaza, which he was forced to flee last year after Israel began its bombing and attacks on the Gaza Strip.

In the nine months since, Nofal and his family have been forced to flee their home four times, traveling back and forth to Gaza to escape attacks, and he said he is determined to ensure his keys don’t become a forgotten keepsake like his grandparents’ keys.

“If the keys to my house will be my only memory from now on, then I don’t want to live anymore,” he said. “I have to go back to my home… I want to stay in Gaza and settle in Gaza with my children in our home.”

Israel has said Palestinians will eventually be allowed to return to their homes in the Gaza Strip, but it is not clear when that will happen, with many homes destroyed or heavily damaged.

Israel’s attack on Gaza The conflict, which began with an Oct. 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel, has forced some 1.9 million of the Palestinian Territories’ pre-war population of 2.3 million to flee their homes. Most have been forced to flee multiple times since then, fleeing multiple times across the peninsula to escape a series of ground offensives.

Each time, it means painful travel to a new location and relocation to crowded makeshift shelters – relatives’ homes, UN schools, tent camps, etc. Along the way, families have struggled to stay together and maintain their meager possessions. In each new location, they must find new sources of food, water and medical care.

In the recent exodus, people Eastern district of the southern city of Khan Younis After Israel ordered the evacuation of the Gaza Strip, almost the entire population is now crammed into an Israeli-declared “humanitarian safe zone,” which stretches across some 60 square kilometers (23 square miles) of the Mediterranean coast, with its heart in a barren rural area called Mwassi.

Despite the name, Israel has carried out deadly airstrikes in the “safe zone.” Conditions are poor in the camps, where displaced people have set up shoddy tents, mostly made of plastic sheeting and blankets propped up on poles. There is no sanitation system and families live in shelters. Next to a sewage pond There is also little access to drinking water or humanitarian aid.

Nofal, 53, a Palestinian Authority employee, said he fled his home in a refugee camp in northern Jabaliya with his wife and six children in October. They first went to the central town of Deir al-Balah and then to Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city. When Israel launched an offensive there in May, they had to flee again, taking refuge in Khan Yunis. Last week, they fled from Khan Yunis to a tent in Mwasi.

“When we move to a new place, it’s hard to deal with bugs and live in sand,” he says. “It’s hot during the day and a little cold at night, and it makes us sick.”

But the initial journey away from his home in Jabaliya was the hardest, he said. He held up a key chain containing the keys to his house and his grandparents’ house in Khaliqat, a former Palestinian village just outside what is now the Gaza Strip. Nothing remains of Khaliqat: In early 1948, a precursor to the Israeli army occupied it and nearby villages, driving out the inhabitants.

These old keys are Descendants of exiled or displaced Palestinians In the midst of the conflict over the creation of the state of Israel, many in Gaza fear they will not be allowed to return to their homes after this war, as they have in previous ones.

Ola Nasser also keeps the keys to her home in Beit Lahiya, north of Gaza. To her, the keys symbolize “security, stability and freedom”. “It’s like my identity.”

When the Gaza war began, her family had just moved into their home with a newly remodeled kitchen. Now the house is badly burned, along with the clothes and ornaments she was forced to leave behind when she fled in October. She misses a cherished set of dishes her brother gave her, shattered in an airstrike.

She, her husband and their three children fled seven times during the war, fleeing from town to town. From Rafah, they found their current shelter in a tent in Mwasi.

“Every evacuation we went through was hard. It took time to cope, and by the time we were able to cope, we had to move again,” she said. Food was often hard to find, as prices skyrocketed. “Some days we only had one meal,” she said.

As refugees fled their homes, they left almost everything behind, taking only the essentials. Noor Mahdi said she only took her house keys, the title deed proving ownership of her apartment, and photo albums of her seven children, which she later used to start a fire to cook on after they were ruined by rain.

“It was very hard for me because it was very important to me and it was filled with memories of my children,” she said.

Omar Fayad kept photos of his daughter and himself from when he was 10 years old, but after moving several times, he regrets never leaving because “it was all bad.” “I wish I had stayed and died there,” Fayad, 57, said, nostalgic for his hometown in Beit Hanoun, north Gaza.

Hamas militants attacked southern Israel on October 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking 250 hostage. The Israeli response has left more than 38,000 Palestinians dead, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. No distinction The differences between civilians and combatants are numerous.

Mohammed Al Ashkar, also from Beit Lahiya, said he had been forced to flee six times along with his four daughters, four sons and grandchildren.

During the journey, the family became separated – Al-Ashkar’s brother stayed behind in the north because his wife was pregnant and not well enough to travel – and soon after, shrapnel from an airstrike hit her in the head, killing her but saving her baby.

One of Al-Ashkar’s sons went to Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza to stay with his wife’s family. One day, while the son was cooking in the kitchen, an airstrike hit the house, killing his wife and four children in the living room. The son’s leg was amputated, and his two surviving children are now living with Al-Ashkar. The other son was killed in another airstrike in Nuseira.

After all, it’s not possession that the 63-year-old misses.

“When you leave everything behind and see all this death and suffering, there’s nothing to cry about.”


Khaled reported from Cairo. Associated Press correspondent Wafaa Shurafa in Mwasi, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.


Read AP’s Gaza coverage here


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