Gaza Strip – Last month, 89-year-old Ibtihaj Daula marked the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing that led to the near-total destruction of Palestinian society. This month, her grandson Ali finishes 16 years of living under blockade in Gaza, which many Palestinians consider a new kind of Nakba.
Daula, known as Um Khattab, talks constantly about her memories before the Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic) and her life in the city of Jaffa before she and her family were expelled to Gaza in 1948. She now lives in the al-Shati refugee camp in the western Gaza Strip. She is a mother of nine and has 80 grandchildren of different ages.
Um Khattab told Al Jazeera the reality of the blockade she and her young grandchildren experience in the Gaza Strip is “tantamount to a new Nakba” that steals their future and dreams.
Israel’s choking blockade on the Gaza Strip was imposed after Hamas, the Palestinian political and military group that Tel Aviv and the United States now consider a “terrorist” organisation, emerged victorious in legislative elections in January 2006. Larger restrictions and sanctions that had wide-ranging ramifications for Palestinians were imposed in mid-2007 after Hamas took full control of the Strip.
Ali, Um Khattab’s 31-year-old grandson, has heard stories of the Nakba and the expulsion of his grandmother’s family from their home in Jaffa many times.
“Yes, the Nakba was brutal, but I see what we are living in in the Gaza Strip in terms of oppressive conditions, wars, destruction, and an ongoing blockade, as a Nakba for all generations,” he told Al Jazeera.
The Israeli blockade on Gaza has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and now impacts nearly 2.38 million Palestinians in the Strip.
Unemployment rose from 23.6 percent before the blockade to 47 percent at the end of 2022. The poverty rate has also increased from 40 percent in 2005 to 61.6 percent in 2022, according to the Geneva-based Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor.
Um Khattab recounts the day she left Jaffa with a heavy heart. She and her family had to move after they heard Zionist gangs were attacking neighborhoods and killing people.
“I was about 12 years old at the time. The trip lasted three days until we reached the shore of Gaza. Here our journey began as refugees in the camps of the Gaza Strip,” she said, looking at her grandson.
She said Gaza was “like a desert” when they first arrived, making them yearn even more for their home in Jaffa, which was like a “palace” in comparison.
“Our house in Jaffa had three floors, and in front of it was a small fountain in the middle of a beautiful garden full of roses and trees, and close to the beach,” she said.
“My father owned a number of fishing and swimming boats at the time. It was very difficult to end up living in tents, on land and in refugee camps. To this day, we’re still sad.”
‘Who will compensate us for lost life?’
Um Khattab says the Israeli occupation not only expelled Palestinians from their country but also made their descendants – born and raised as refugees under oppressive conditions – lose hope in any future.
“In the past, we lived well. Roads were open between Palestinian cities, and even between Arab countries,” she said.
“My grandmother was Lebanese, and we used to go by boat to visit her easily. All those beautiful days are gone. I think today about the situation of young people in Gaza and I feel so sad for them.”
Ali says many of his friends and colleagues spent their 20s and 30s suffering the stifling conditions imposed on Gaza, especially their inability to travel.
“I am 31 years old and I’ve never left Gaza, not even once,” he said. “I tried to travel twice, but I lost both opportunities because of the closure of the crossings and the complexity of the travel procedures.”
He also spent nearly 11 years looking for a job, from the time he graduated from university until about a year and a half ago.
“I’m considered lucky to have found anything. This is the reality of many of my generation under Israeli blockade. Is this not a Nakba?
“Is there someone who will compensate us for our lost life?” he wondered.
Before Israel blockaded the Gaza Strip, individuals and goods moved through six crossings: Erez, Karni, Kerem Shalom, Nahal Oz, Rafah, and Sufa.
After the blockade, Israel closed all border crossings except Erez for the movement of people – over which it now imposes complicated travel restrictions – and Kerem Shalom, for goods.
Another main crossing, Egypt-controlled Rafah, is what Gaza residents use the most to travel to other countries.
To leave or to stay
Hassan al-Kilani, from the village of Burayr 18km (11 miles) northeast of Gaza City, is another Palestinian who was forced out of his home 75 years ago. Despite the hardship he has been through, he is dedicated to Palestine and firmly against his 22-year-old grandson Mohammad’s wish to leave the Gaza Strip.
“I can’t accept the idea of my grandchildren emigrating from their homeland, even if the conditions are difficult in the Gaza Strip,” al-Kilani, who was born in 1934, told Al Jazeera.
Mohammad, who is about to finish his last semester of software engineering at university, said that instead of being excited, he is filled with anxiety because of the gloomy prospects in the Gaza Strip.
“My graduation is a nightmare … I’ll be joining the thousands of young people who are unemployed, including my friends,” he said.
“All I can think of now is immigrating to a European country with the help of my relatives.”
A survey conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) last year found that 90 percent of young respondents in Gaza believe their lives are abnormal. Two-thirds said they are dependent on their families and 40 percent said they have no hope of finding a job in the next 15 years.
The blockade has taken a huge toll on mental health as well, with 49 percent of Gaza youth saying they suffer from stress, anxiety and depression, 34.5 percent reporting problems with social connection, and 12.4 percent abstaining from marriage.
Still, al-Kilani gets into heated arguments with his grandson over the idea of leaving Gaza, even as he recounts tales of his family’s expulsion from their lands in 1948.
“The Israeli gangs attacked our village at dawn, and those who remained were exterminated, according to what we heard,” he said. “My parents, my six brothers and I left for neighbouring villages. We stayed a little in al-Majdal, but we were surprised by the arrival of the Zionist gangs there.”
After walking 15km (nine miles) north to get to al-Majdal, the al-Kilani family had to keep walking for another 25km (16 miles) to reach Gaza.
Al-Kilani still remembers the details of his village so accurately that he drew a detailed map of it, with “every street and every house”.
“When we arrived in Gaza, the conditions were very difficult. Most of us used to work farming our lands, there was none of that in Gaza. We were without money, food, or work … complete refugees.”
Al-Kilani recounted how they were out in the cold at first, living in the open in tents.
“The situation was indescribable until international efforts intervened [and] refugee camps were established on the outskirts of Gaza City,” he said.
He also believes that the catastrophe of displacement and expulsion from 75 years ago can be compared to what the current generations in the Gaza Strip are going through.
“These youths are facing the catastrophe of losing the future. I always compare my father’s life as a young man and our life before Nakba and the openness and ease we used to live in with the lives of today’s youth in Gaza. I feel sorry for them,” he said.
Through the years, Israel has worked to deepen the isolation of Gaza, especially through its policy of separating Gaza from the occupied West Bank through travel restrictions. It has long barred university students, academics and professionals from pursuing education outside, while severely impacting healthcare and tearing families apart.
In the past 15 years, Israel has also launched four major assaults on the Gaza Strip – in 2008-2009, 2012, 2014, and 2021 – in addition to air and ground attacks.
The attacks killed and injured thousands of civilians, caused economic collapse and destroyed large parts of the infrastructure.
Mohammad says: “Life [in Gaza] is only about wars, constant bombardment, ongoing blockade, closure of crossings, electricity outages, poverty and unemployment. Young people are expected to deal with all these crazy conditions as if they were normal.
“My older brothers graduated from university with high grades, and have not yet found jobs. Their psychological condition is deteriorating. This is a new Nakba,” he said.
Al-Kilani said his family and others displaced by the Nakba believed they would return to their lands in months if not weeks.
“Today, it’s been 75 years… but hope does not stop,” he said.