When IDF pamphlets started falling from the sky on Saturday evening, warning residents of Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip to leave their homes and move southward toward Gaza City, Farid Abusada decided to stay put.
“There’s nowhere safe in the Gaza Strip; the Zionist airplanes bomb everywhere; — homes, schools, hospitals … there’s nowhere quiet,” the 45-year-old citrus farmer told The Times of Israel in a phone conversation. “We have nothing to lose.”
Most residents of Beit Lahiya, a city of over 100,000 residents which mostly depends on agriculture, opted to remain in their homes despite the IDF warning, he said. The few that left were farmers from outlying areas who feared that rescue vehicles would not be able to reach their homes in case of emergency.
Hamas’s interior ministry, for its part, has urged residents of the northern Gaza Strip to remain in their homes Sunday, calling the Israeli warnings “psychological warfare meant to confuse and spread panic in people’s minds.”
But according to Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which has placed its schools in Gaza at the disposal of Beit Lahiya residents, some 17,000 Palestinians have so far been received in 20 UNRWA centers. During Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, the number of fleeing Palestinians reached 50,000, he noted.
Even while praising Hamas for “strengthening the home front and the resolve of the Palestinian people” in Gaza, Abusada’s decision to remain home with his wife and five boys had more to do with a general sense of fatalism and helplessness than government coercion, or fear of punishment.
‘People opt to remain at home rather than bear the humiliation of a second Nakba’
“I live in an open agricultural area, so I have no reason to leave. So far, no one from Hamas came and told me not to leave,” Abusada said. “Even if you tell me ‘leave your home’… Where would I go? I don’t even have money for a taxi to take me. Everyone is scared, but our lack of means prevent us from going out.”
“People figure that all locations in Gaza are prone to bombing, so their homes are the safest place,” he added. “Even those who fled to UNRWA [schools] have been bombed many times.”
Gunness, the UNRWA spokesman, tweeted on Monday that 47 UNRWA premises including schools, clinics and warehouses “have been damaged by air raids and other fire.” The IDF had not responded to The Times of Israel’s request for clarification at time of publication, but a tweet by the IDF spokesperson Monday evening reported that Hamas has been holding meetings and storing weapons across from a UNRWA medical center, a school, and residential homes.
Hamas has meetings and stores weapons across the street from an UNRWA medical center, a school and civilian homes. pic.twitter.com/eW0UIrdcxP
— IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) July 14, 2014
When airstrikes take place near Abusada’s home (mostly at night, he said, not during the day), he assembles his family in one interior room, warning the children to stay away from windows. “Then, whatever God decides will happen.”
But in reality, not all areas in Gaza are under direct threat. Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University and Farid’s cousin, said that while while his neighborhood in western Gaza city, near the beach, has remained largely unscathed, his apartment is too small to host his extended family in Beit Lahiya.
“People opt to remain at home rather than bear the humiliation of a second Nakba,” Abusada told The Times of Israel, referring to the war of 1948 which caused thousands of Palestinians — whose descendants today constitute the vast majority of the Strip’s inhabitants — to flee to Gaza as refugees.
There is currently no shortage of food in Gaza, Abusada noted, but many people lack the cash to buy it. PA salaries were deposited in the bank accounts of some 60,000 civil servants on July 7, a day before the start of Operation Protective Shield, and many were unable to draw money before the airstrikes began. Now, all ATM machines are nonfunctional, he said, a result of both the state of emergency and a Hamas decision to punish the PA for refusing to pay the salaries of some 40,000 civil servants employed by Hamas over seven years of political divide.