Israel-Gaza conflict: Palestinian families return home in defiance of Israeli threats

Death toll in current offensive stands at 172, Palestinian officials say, of whom 77 per cent are civilians, according to the UN

Seven people were squeezed inside the ageing and battered Mercedes with two mattresses strapped to the roof and plastic sacks bulging out of the boot. This was a family on the move in North Gaza, where residents had been ordered by the Israeli military to evacuate. They were not, however, fleeing their home, but returning there, determined to stick it out.

The exodus, which had taken place in fear of an impending major military assault, is being reversed with an extraordinary display of defiance; a steady stream of people are heading back to their towns and villages, some within 24 hours of departing from them.

This appears to put Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in a difficult position over an area which it claims is the prime launching site for hundreds of rockets into Israel. Leaflets had been dropped from aircraft to the inhabitants demanding evacuation with a deadline of midday on Sunday, with the threat: “Those who fail to comply with the instructions will endanger their lives and the lives of their families. Beware”.

A senior Israeli military officer, in a briefing to the media, had maintained: “the enemy has built rocket infrastructure in between houses” at which forces will “strike with might” indicating this was likely to be on Sunday night, but without elaborating whether this would mean a land offensive. However, the officer had added: “He [the enemy] wants to trap me into an attack and into hurting civilians.” A senior Israeli official, while stressing the threat from North Gaza, had acknowledged that there was only a limited window to carry out operations before residents began to drift back.


Adding to the move back home among some of the internal refugees is the feeling that nowhere and no one was really safe in Gaza in this missile war between Hamas and Israel. The home of Dr Nasser al Tatar, the director of Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, was destroyed in an attack on Sunday evening. The death toll, according to Palestinian officials, stand at 172, the UN says 77 per cent of them are civilians.

There were airstrikes by Israel and rocket launches by Hamas in the north on Monday afternoon, but nothing like the onslaught which had been anticipated. That was one of the reasons why Abdulrahman al-Karimi had brought his wife and six children back after just one night at a UN shelter, the New Gaza Elementary Prep School in Gaza, in his 11 year old Mercedes back home to Jabaliya.

“We have had some very bad bombings by the Israelis here since the fighting began and so when we got the leaflets I thought it was going to get even worse and we may get soldiers coming in”, said the 36 year old mechanic. “But we heard the attacks have not been so bad since [the deadline] yesterday and we decided to come back. My wife and children were very unhappy at the school, there were more than 30 people sharing one classroom. So I thought why should we stay like that when we have our own home? The situation won’t be too bad, Inshallah, and we will be alright.”

Israelis take shelter near Ashkelon (EPA)

Brothers Riaz and Ayman al-Farhat and their families had misgivings about leaving their homes in Beit Lahiya in the first place after the experience of two years ago when, they say, their house was vandalised and looted by Israeli troops bivouacked there. “We went to stay with an aunt in Rafah; but there were already two families living there whose homes have been bombed. We were worried about out our homes, they might damage them or, maybe this time, even blow them up, so when we heard that our neighbours were going back, we decided to as well,” said Ayman al-Farhat.

“We don’t think the Israelis will invade, they are too scared that they will lose a lot of people. At first we thought that just Riaz and I will go back. But our wives, our children, were very upset at being left behind, so we all came back.” As he spoke, there were deep booms in the background. “One could get bombed in Rafah or anywhere else in Gaza as well, we cannot be cowards over this,” Riaz al-Farhat shrugged his shoulders.

Salah Rajab, 40, had already had his house destroyed in an air strike in Beit Lahiya four days ago after a warning in a mobile call by the Israeli military. He and his family decided to stay on, at the house of one of his brothers. “I am just a farmer, I had nothing to do with politics, but they destroyed my home”, he protested. “Maybe they had false information, I will never find out. There is nowhere for us to go to. My brothers are staying and I am staying, this is our land, they have destroyed a house, but we will build again.”

A property in Ashdod, Israel, hit by rocket fire (Getty)

For Izaak Musullam, shopping with his two year old grandson, Adham, the issue is also one of principle. “Even if my house falls down around my head, I am not going to go. It is, of course, worrying for children, but you can’t just send them away, what would a place be like without children? No we’ll stay as families, as a community.”

But some who have stayed behind in the north have chosen to leave their homes. A number of families have moved into schools in Jabaliya. “We don’t want to go out of here unless there is a ceasefire, it is too dangerous,” said Faiza Sabah. “In the meantime we are stuck here, with no one to help us. We don’t want these schools to turn into refugee camps.”