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Why Palestinians can leave north Gaza but can’t return?

On a balmy day in the second week of April, thousands of Palestinians poured onto Al Rashid Street – hoping to return to northern Gaza, to their devastated homes they were forced to leave months ago by the marauding Israeli army.

Some held the hands of their children, others cradled babies in their arms. Some pushed wheelchairs with the aged and disabled, while others balanced a bag or two on their heads, the only things they could carry back to what was left of their homes after months of a brutal Israeli military offensive.

The exodus was sparked by rumours that Israeli forces would let women, children under 14 and adults over 50 cross the checkpoint along Al Rashid Street and allow them to cross over to the north.

On April 14, however, the Israeli army denied any plans to open the checkpoint. Instead, soldiers blocked the path of the travelling Palestinians and fired on the crowd.

At least five Palestinians were killed and several others injured in the unprovoked firing on unarmed civilians, which drew worldwide condemnation.

As the Israeli army’s Arabic language spokesperson Avichay Adraee ruled out any plans to allow people to return to north Gaza, the people were forced to turn back southward.

Others, like Mohammed Abu Jarad, a Palestinian teacher who fled to Rafah from the town of Beit Lahia, know very well the price they could pay for trying to return to his home.

“We have not attempted to return to the north because of the presence of the Israeli occupation forces in the Netzarim area,” Abu Jarad tells TRT World, referring to an area where the Israeli forces have built a protective corridor and effectively split Gaza into two halves.

“If we do so, we expose ourselves to being killed.”

Since launching the military offensive in Gaza – following the October 7 cross-border blitzkrieg by Hamas – the Israeli military has also built two outposts and erected several checkpoints in what is now known as the Netzarim Corridor.

TRT WORLDIsraeli forces have built a corridor and split Gaza into two halves.

In its initial evacuation orders to leave north Gaza on October 13, the Israeli army forced nearly half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million to move south, claiming the evacuation was temporary.

Some international organisations criticised this policy as a form of forced displacement, and the United Nations General Assembly called upon Israel to rescind the move.

In response, Israeli officials claimed their sole aim was to protect civilians from intensive bombardment in the area, but actions on the ground tell a different story.

“Israel called on Palestinians to leave and promised to secure their return, but that quickly turned out to be false,” says a Palestinian researcher and academic who preferred to identify himself only by his pseudonym, Dr Ali Abo Al Hassan.

“Now, they are building a buffer zone in the areas they cleared of structures and people, confiscating 16 percent of Gaza,” Al Hassan tells TRT World.

TRT WORLDBuffer zone claims 16 percent of Gaza land.

Trapped in Rafah

In December, as Israel’s ground invasion expanded to central Gaza, Palestinians taking shelter in south-eastern Gaza after being displaced from the north were ordered to move further south. In effect, they were pinned down in Rafah, the southernmost city of the besieged enclave – once home to 250,000 people.

Today, more than six months into Israel’s war on Gaza, over a million displaced Palestinians are crammed into Rafah–in dire need of humanitarian aid, with limited access to essential necessities such as water, food, hygiene, shelter, medical supplies, and electricity since October 7.

Abu Jarad’s town, Beit Lahia, located near the northern border between Gaza and Israel, was one of the most intensively bombed areas by Israeli air strikes and shelling. To protect their children from this terror, they initially evacuated to a shelter school.

However, as the bombing intensified around the school and the Israeli army advanced, Abu Jarad’s family was forced to flee once again and head towards Rafah.

Taking a huge risk to travel from Beit Lahia to the south on an extremely unsafe route, where many families were bombed on their way to Rafah, they arrived only to find no empty shelters available, adding to their displacement.

“There was no longer enough space in the shelter schools, and we had no relatives to stay with,” Abu Jarad says. With his extended family of 11, including six children, he now lives in a tent west of Rafah.

While the United Nations shelters are overcrowded and apartments and buildings house hundreds, many are left to live in tents and makeshift shacks, struggling to meet their essential needs.

“Life in Rafah is unbearable,” he says. “The simplest tasks are difficult, from using the bathroom to obtaining water for drinking and daily use.”

TRT WORLDBeit Hanoun is situated near Beit Lahia in the northern governorate of Gaza.

Monitoring movement

In addition to the dismal conditions in the shelters and tent camps, Palestinians in the southern parts of Gaza yearn to return to the north, fearing an impending ground invasion in Rafah.

In February, the Israeli army announced plans to expand its ground invasion to the overcrowded city of Rafah, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu consistently reiterating their determination to do so without specifying when.

A ground offensive will leave Palestinians without any escape route from Israeli bullets as the 6.5 km-long Netzarim Corridor stands in the way.

Satellite images and reports from the ground show that Israel has established security barriers, checkpoints, and two outposts on this road to monitor Palestinian movement towards the north, Antoine Shalhoub, a researcher at the Palestinian Centre for Israeli Studies in Ramallah, tells TRT World.

The Netzarim Corridor stretches from the Gaza-Israeli border to the Mediterranean Sea.

Abu Jarad notes that he has not seen a single family succeed in returning to the North.

“The invasion of Rafah may be exploited to carry out permanent forced displacement under the guise of voluntary migration,” Shalhoub warns.

While Israel claims this corridor is essential for security reasons, Palestinians fear that it will permanently ban the return of Palestinians and lead to the rebuilding of Israeli settlements. Such a scenario would set Gaza back by many years – when Israel maintained strict control of Palestinian movement before withdrawing from the enclave in 2005.

“Israel’s insistence on preventing the displaced people from returning to northern Gaza to their homes implies an intention to expand settlements, as statements from Netanyahu’s government have confirmed since the beginning of the war,” Shalhoub explains.

Far-right ministers have many times voiced the opinion that Palestinians should be “encouraged” to leave Gaza and suggested that neighbouring Arab countries accommodate the refugees.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz published satellite images showing the construction of showers, bathrooms, and electricity services at two outposts the Israeli forces are building in the Netzarim Corridor.

One outpost is located at the crossroads between Netzarim Road and Salah a-Din Road, while the second is located where it meets Gaza’s coastal route.

TRT WORLDIsrael has established security barriers, checkpoints, and two outposts on the Netzarim Road.

While the Israeli army calls the construction of these outposts a long-term achievement, the control of the Netzarim Corridor is at the heart of the ongoing truce talks with Hamas. The Palestinian group is demanding Israeli troops withdrawal from Gaza – which would effectively mean the release of control over the Netzarim Corridor, the road, and the outposts built on it.

Social media posts depict the brightly-lit outposts in the middle of Gaza on Netzarim Corridor, in stark contrast to the darkness surrounding them. Other images and videos show Israeli troops in the area eating, drinking, and dancing while the rest of the enclave suffers from famine-level hunger.

Longing for home

Many of the displaced Palestinians are descendants of people who fled during the Nakba, or catastrophe of 1948 – a term referring to the mass displacement, dispossession, and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

At present, more than 300,000 Palestinians remain in north Gaza, according to UNRWA estimations.

Many Palestinians say they fear reliving this collective trauma and that if they leave now, they will never be able to return.

“Those people have been punished with starvation for months, as Israel deliberately withholds resources and aid to reach them, to force them to leave. More than 30 Palestinians were starved to death,” highlights Al Hassan, emphasising that Israel uses starvation as a displacement tactic.

Now well past its 200th day, Israel’s brutal war on Gaza has resulted in the killing of over 34,000 Palestinians and injuring at least 77,000 others. The relentless bombardment has destroyed or damaged approximately 62 percent of all homes in Gaza, equivalent to 290,820 housing units, according to the World Bank’s damage assessment on March 29.

Northern Gaza has borne the brunt of the destruction, with at least 70 percent of the buildings flattened.

TRT WORLDIsrael’s relentless bombardment has destroyed or damaged approximately 62 percent of all homes in Gaza.

Even if their homes lie in ruins, Palestinians in the southern parts of Gaza hope to return to their homes in Gaza. Some desperately want to reunite with their loved ones, while others simply long to return to their homes.

“We cannot imagine ourselves without returning to Beit Lahia, even if the house is demolished or damaged. We do not want to live far from our home in the north, where many of my relatives still reside, including my cousins and others,” Abu Jarad says.

“What we think about most now is the house. Our house has suffered significant damage but is still standing. We hope it remains so. Even if it is destroyed, part of it can be repaired. What we fear most is its destruction,” he adds.

Source: TRT