House keys have symbolic value for families in Gaza who have been repeatedly displaced by war


MUWASI, Gaza Strip (AP) — On his key ring, Hassan Nofal keeps the keys to two houses. One is his grandparents’ home in what is now southern Israel, where he says his family lived. expelled by Israeli forces in 1948 and where they could never return.

The other is to Nofal’s home in northern Gaza, where he was forced to flee last year after Israel launched bombings and offensives in the area.

In the nearly nine months since then, Nofal and his family have been uprooted four times and driven back and forth across the Gaza Strip to escape the onslaught. Nofal said he is determined to ensure his key does not become a keepsake like his grandparents’.

“If my house key is just a memory when I move on, then I don’t want to live anymore,” he said. “I have to go back to my house… I want to stay in Gaza and settle in Gaza with my children in our house.”

Israel has said Palestinians will eventually be allowed to return to their homes in Gaza, but it is not clear when. Many homes have been destroyed or badly damaged.

Israel’s attack on Gaza, caused by Hamas’ October 7 attack on southern Israel, has displaced some 1.9 million of the area’s pre-war population, 2.3 million Palestinians, from their homes. Most have since been repeatedly uprooted, fleeing the length of the Strip to escape a series of ground offensives.

Each time has meant a painful move to a new location and a series of overcrowded, temporary shelters—whether extended family homes, UN schools, or tent camps. Along the way, families have struggled to stay together and hold on to a few possessions. In each new location, they must find new sources of food, water, and medical treatment.

In the last exodus people fled eastern districts of the southern city of Khan Younis after Israel ordered an evacuation there. Nearly the entire population of Gaza is now crammed into an Israeli-declared “humanitarian safe zone” of about 60 square kilometers (23 square miles) on the Mediterranean coast, centered on a barren rural area called Muwasi.

Despite the name, Israel has carried out deadly airstrikes in the “safe zone.” Conditions are dire in sprawling camps of ramshackle tents set up by the displaced — mostly plastic sheeting and blankets on poles. With no sanitation, families live next to open sewage ponds and have little access to drinking water or humanitarian aid.

Nofal, a 53-year-old Palestinian Authority employee, said he, his wife and six children fled their home in the northern Jabaliya refugee camp in October, first to the central city of Deir al-Balah, then to Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah. They fled again when Israel launched an offensive there in May, moving to Khan Younis. Last week, they fled Khan Younis to a tent in Muwasi.

“When you move to a new place, it’s hard to deal with insects and live on sandy soil,” he said. “We get sick because it’s hot during the day and a little bit cold at night.”

But the first step, leaving his home in Jabaliya, was the hardest, he said. He held up a set of keys to his house and his grandparents’ house in what was once the Palestinian village of Hulayqat, just outside what is now Gaza. There is nothing left of Huylaqat — the precursor to the Israeli army seized the town and nearby villages in early 1948 and expelled their inhabitants.

Such old keys are a precious possession for the descendants of Palestinians who were expelled or fled during the conflict that surrounded the creation of Israel. Many in Gaza fear that, as in that previous war, they will not be allowed to return to their homes after this war.

Ola Nassar also has the keys to her home in the northern Gaza city of Beit Lahiya. For her, they symbolize “security, stability, freedom. It’s like my identity.”

Her family had just moved into the house with a newly renovated kitchen when the war in Gaza began. Now the house is badly burned, along with the clothes and decorations she had to leave behind when they fled in October. She is missing a cherished set of dishes that was a gift from her brother and was destroyed in an airstrike.

She, her husband and their three children were displaced seven times during the war, fleeing from town to town, from Rafah to their current home – a tent in Muwasi.

“Every move we went through was difficult because it takes time to cope. And by the time we could cope, we had to move again,” she said. Finding food was often difficult because of the sky-high prices. “There were days when we only had one meal,” she said.

When they ran from their homes, many left almost everything behind, taking only essentials. Nour Mahdi said she took only her house keys, the deed to her apartment to prove ownership, and a photo album of her seven children. The album later broke in the rain, so she said she used it as kindling for a fire to cook with.

“That was very difficult because it was very important to me because it contained memories of my children,” she said.

Omar Fayad kept a photo of his daughter and one of himself when he was 10. But after several moves — “each place worse than the other” — he wishes he had never left his home. “It would have been better for me if I had stayed there in my house and died,” the 57-year-old said, longing for his home in Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza.

Hamas militants who attacked southern Israel on October 7 killed about 1,200 people and took 250 others hostage. The Israeli response has killed more than 38,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which makes no difference between civilians and fighters.

Muhammed al-Ashqar, also from Beit Lahiya, said he has been displaced six times with his four daughters, four sons and grandchildren.

Along the way, the family was separated. Al-Ashqar’s brother remained in the north because his wife was pregnant and not well enough to move. Shortly after, she was hit in the head by shrapnel from an airstrike and died, but the baby was saved.

One of al-Ashqar’s sons went to the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza to stay at his wife’s house. The son was cooking in the kitchen one day when an airstrike hit the house, killing his wife and four of his children in the living room. The son’s leg was amputated, and two of his surviving children now live with al-Ashqar. Another son was killed in a separate strike in Nuseirat.

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

“There is nothing to cry about after you leave everything behind and see all this death and all this suffering.”


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


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