As Cease-Fire Takes Hold, Some Gazans Attempt a Treacherous Return Home


When the cease-fire in Gaza took effect early Friday morning, Palestinians across the Gaza Strip prepared to go back to the homes they fled to see if they were still intact, to check on relatives left behind, and in some cases, to finally bury their dead.

The skies above the besieged territory were free of Israeli warplanes for the first day in seven weeks, a brief respite from what has amounted to one of the most intense bombardments of the 21st century. But as some tried to return home to northern Gaza from parts farther south on foot, Israeli forces on the ground opened fire on them, according to witnesses, an Egyptian official and some of those injured.

The Israeli military would not answer questions about whether its forces shot and killed Palestinians trying to go back to their homes. But it said its forces were “stationed along the designated operational lines of the pause” in accordance with the agreement.

Ahead of the cease-fire, Israel had warned Gazans that it would prohibit them from trying to move from southern Gaza to the north during the cessation in hostilities.

For Gazans, not being allowed to return home even temporarily during a pause in the fighting fed their fears that Israel plans to permanently displace them, as happened in 1948 during the war surrounding Israel’s creation.

“Displacement of parts of Gaza’s civilian population is permitted only if required for the civilians’ security or imperative military reasons,” said Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. “The civilian population needs to be able to return as soon as possible — permanent displacement is a war crime.”

Israeli forces invaded Gaza weeks ago and ordered residents of northern Gaza to leave their homes and move to the south of the small territory. The Israeli military now occupies much of the northern half of the strip and some 1.7 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinian residents have been forced to flee their homes. The displaced are sheltering in schools, mosques, hospitals or with family and friends.

On Friday morning, Kareem al-Nasir, 30, joined thousands of other Palestinians trying to return from central Gaza to their homes in the northern Gaza Strip. But as they tried to make their way north along a road on foot, he said, Israeli forces nearby opened fire on them. Mr. al-Nasir said he was shot in the leg and is now unable to walk.

An Egyptian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, described the same scene, saying an Israeli tank fired at a group of Palestinians at an Israeli checkpoint south of Gaza City on Friday morning and killed two people.

“They said there is a cease-fire. What cease-fire?” said Mr. al-Nasir, back at the school in Deir al-Balah, a city in central Gaza, where he and his family have been seeking shelter since they fled their home in Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza. “When we tried to pass, they shot at us and injured and killed us,” he added.

“People wanted to return to their homes,” Mr. al-Nasir said. “We wanted to go see our relatives, see the martyrs, see our homes.”

Video posted by local journalists in Gaza showed hundreds of Palestinians carrying bags and bedding items and walking along roads in the southern city of Khan Younis heading to homes in other parts of southern Gaza, at least temporarily.

Some were still trying to decide if they could make the trek safely.

Nayrouz Qarmout, a Palestinian author from Gaza City in the north, said she fled with her family to southern Gaza weeks ago. She said they had been trying to find out whether they can return.

“But as far as we understand, entering the area is prohibited.”

Even those who know their homes have been destroyed by Israeli airstrikes want to return to see what they can find or salvage from their belongings under the rubble, she said.

“People are attempting to see what remains of their homes or relatives,” Ms. Qarmout said. “They don’t know anything about what has happened to relatives after they lost all contact with them.”

Communication in Gaza has been difficult since the early days of the war after Israel bombed a telecommunications tower and has occasionally been plunged into near total phone and internet blackouts, either because of Israeli disruptions or a lack of fuel.

The cease-fire deal calls for more aid to be allowed into Gaza. Besides its devastating bombardment, Israel has also imposed a near-total siege on Gaza following the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that rules the territory. That has severely restricted the deliveries of food, fuel and medicine, worsening a humanitarian crisis for the population that predated the war.

A total of 230 trucks carrying humanitarian aid, medicine and fuel are scheduled to go in on Friday through the Egyptian border, said Wael Abu Omar, a spokesman for the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing.

“No one feels safe,” said Mohammad al-Masri, a local journalist who last week fled his home in northern Gaza to Khan Younis.

“I haven’t heard anyone say they will go back home. Everyone is afraid,” he said. “Because at any movement the cease-fire could fall apart.”

Vivian Yee contributed reporting.


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