‘Walking to an unknown fate’: Gaza war reopens old wounds for Lebanon’s Palestinians

If he closes his eyes, Daoud Mohammad Naser can still hear the wind whistling through the olive trees that sheltered him during his flight from mandate-era Palestine 75 years ago.

Just six years old during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war — which led to the mass displacement and dispossession of some 700,000 Palestinians, according to the UN — Naser watched as his neighbours desperately streamed out of their homes with just the clothes on their backs, to the sound of approaching gunfire from Jewish militias.

“We walked until our feet bled, sleeping in olive groves along the way, scavenging for food and drinking dirty water until we reached southern Lebanon,” 81-year-old Naser recalls.

Those painful memories have been brought back over the past five weeks by the sight of Israel’s ferocious bombardment of Gaza and forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of people there, in an offensive launched after a devastating attack on Israel by militants based in the strip.

This week, around 50,000 people joined the exodus from the north of the besieged enclave to the south, many of them walking — echoing Naser’s footsteps 75 years ago.

“They are all walking towards an unknown fate, just like we did,” Naser said. “This is like the Nakba, all over again.”

The founding of the Jewish state in 1948 is remembered by Palestinians as the Nakba, which means “catastrophe” in Arabic — the moment that more than half the population lost their homes and land, as well as their way of life. It is an indelible trauma for generations of stateless Palestinians, their collective memories melded into one big gaping wound.

The UN estimates that about 5mn Palestinian refugees are scattered around the Middle East today, including survivors of the march from Palestine and several generations of their descendants. About 5mn more live in the occupied territories.

Some Palestinians gained citizenship in host countries like Jordan, which gave them equal rights. But most of the estimated 250,000 in Lebanon, like Naser, have remained stateless, with nearly half of them constrained to 12 overcrowded refugee camps across the tiny Mediterranean country, where they often endure dire poverty.

Palestinians are not allowed to own property, nor to work in many professions, and their access to state-provided services is extremely limited. Fears of disturbing the country’s delicate sectarian balance have made negotiations over their status largely taboo.

“This was all supposed to be temporary,” Naser said, his delicate hands clasped tight, as he spoke of the constraints that steadily eroded his hopes for a better, more dignified life. “We never thought we would be here for 75 years.”

Naser spoke to the Financial Times from the Active Aging House in Shatila, a centre that tends to the needs of the community’s seniors — some of whom live alone, their relatives either abroad or killed in the many bouts of violence that have peppered their lives in exile.

The camp is a narrow warren of crumbling alleyways and tangled electrical cables, its grey concrete walls interspersed with murals in the colours of the Palestinian flag.

A group of Arab refugees walks along a road from Jerusalem to Lebanon, carrying their belongings with them, in November 1948

Since the start of the war between Hamas and Israel on October 7, when gunmen from the militant group rampaged through southern Israel and killed about 1,200 people, news broadcasts have rung out from every home in this labyrinthine corner of southern Beirut. Camp residents have watched in horror as the death toll in Gaza, currently at more than 11,000, continues to rise. Many people in Shatila have relatives trapped in the tiny enclave that houses more than 2mn people, with large numbers of them now crammed into makeshift shelters in the overcrowded south.

“Their pain is our pain,” said Sobhiye Rasheed Odeh, 80, her eyes fixed on Al Jazeera’s live broadcast from the Gaza Strip. She waits anxiously each day to hear news of her relatives there.

For Palestinians, the bombardment and siege of Gaza has been another painful chapter in an endless series since 1948. The latest conflict has been especially distressing for those in Lebanon, a country whose own recent history is marred by war, political chaos and now a desperate economic crisis.

Palestinian militants were heavily involved in Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war and are often blamed for starting it. Fighters used Lebanon as a launch pad for attacks on Israel throughout the war, prompting the expulsion of their political leadership in the 1980s.

The Shatila camp itself was the site of a notorious massacre in 1982 when Lebanese Christian militias — backed by the Israeli army, which had recently invaded Lebanon — slaughtered hundreds of residents as well as those in neighbouring Sabra over three days in retaliation for attacks by Palestinian militants. In 1983, Israel’s own Kahan Commission of Inquiry found that while Lebanese militiamen were directly responsible for the massacre, Israel also bore “indirect responsibility”.

Sobhiye Rasheed Odeh

Odeh said: “We have never known a day of peace since 1948 . . . dispossessed and slaughtered by either [Israelis] or their allies in Lebanon.” Odeh listed the members of her immediate family who had been killed since she moved there decades ago, including her son, son-in-law, nephew and father.

“When my father died, his hands were clasped tightly around the key to our house in Palestine,” she said.

Odeh’s childhood home, like many others, was erased from the map many years ago. Her village was given a Hebrew name and a new identity. That is why watching the bombardment of Gaza is particularly painful.

“It is another type of erasure,” said 25-year-old Salman Lutfi, another resident of Shatila, “another attempt to erase Palestine.”

“The Israelis want to raze Gaza to the ground and take it from us,” Lutfi said, as he tended to his father’s corner shop. “And then we Palestinians will have nothing left.”

Calls by Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during the war for Gazans to “leave” have raised suspicions that Israel wants to push them into neighbouring Egypt indefinitely, extinguishing all hopes of a future Palestinian state. This is one reason why some Gazans have refused to leave their homes since the start of hostilities.

UN officials, Palestinian leaders and human rights experts have all sounded the alarm. “There is a grave danger that what we are witnessing may be a repeat of the 1948 Nakba,” said Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, as the mass movement of people began.

Some 1.7mn Palestinians in Gaza, or 70 per cent of its residents, are registered as refugees following past displacements. That is one reason why, despite the month-long bombardment and a ground incursion, some people are refusing to leave their homes.

“I was born on May 25, 1948, during the Nakba,” Suleiman Rabi’ al-Rubai’e said, adding, “the first Nakba. Now we are living the second Nakba.”

The 75-year-old’s family and neighbours carried him out of his house “against my will” on the morning of October 7, fearing Israeli bombs would soon fall on their neighbourhood in the southern city of Rafah.

Israeli shelling flattened his home soon after, forcing him to seek shelter at a UN-run school with his family.

Every morning since, he has returned to the site of his home, to make tea amid the rubble and stare at the scorched olive trees he had planted years ago.

“I will not leave my land no matter what happens,” he said, his Palestinian keffiyeh scarf wrapped tightly around his head. “I will not allow us to be displaced again, even if they kill me and all of my family.”

Additional reporting by Mai Khaled in Rafah