Keys to lost homes in Gaza become latest symbols of Palestinian displacement

By Saleh Salem

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - Palestinians displaced by Israel's military offensive on Gaza are holding onto keys to damaged or destroyed homes as a symbol of their loss, a tradition dating back to the mass displacement of 1948.

Most people in Gaza are refugees or descendants of refugees who fled or were driven from their homes during the 1948 war that accompanied Israel's creation, an event known to Palestinians as the "Nakba", or catastrophe.

The keys to homes lost in 1948 have been handed down the generations of some refugee families, a symbol of what they consider their right to return - one of the most intractable issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Now, keys to homes bombarded in the Israel-Hamas war raging since October are also taking on a symbolic meaning.

"History is repeating itself," said Hatem Al-Ferani, sheltering in a tent in Rafah, southern Gaza, with his family.

"My grandfather took the key and left with it, hoping to come back, and I took the key hoping to return to my apartment and find it as it was."

Instead, during a week-long truce in November, Al-Ferani received pictures showing that the family home, an apartment in a block shared with his parents and brothers in Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza, had been destroyed.

"This is the key to that home, which I worked hard for," he said, holding it up. "I am now 44 years old. At this age, I need to start my life from the beginning and build a new house."

The war began when militants from Hamas, the Islamist group that has run Gaza since 2007, attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking 253 hostage, according to Israel. It was the worst day of violence against Jews since the Holocaust.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel has responded with an air and ground offensive on Gaza that has killed more than 30,000 people, according to Gaza's health ministry. It has laid waste to much of the territory, displaced most of its 2.3 million people, and caused widespread hunger and disease.


Hussein Abu Amsha is in a similar situation to that of Al-Ferani. He and his family are in a tent in Rafah, and during the truce he received a video that showed their home in Beit Hanoun, northeastern Gaza, had been bombarded.

"This key is all that's left of the house," he said, showing a key fastened to a keyring made from a coin with the word "Palestine" on it, which he said dated back to the British Mandate period, before the creation of Israel.

"The key represents the homeland for all of us. We cannot live without a homeland," said Abu Amsha. "We hope to be able to go back, even if it's just to a tent on top of our house."

Mohammed Al-Majdalawi, displaced from Al-Shati refugee camp in northern Gaza, said he remembered his grandfather showing him an old key and recounting memories of 1948, and now he was going through a similar experience.

"What did I do to Israel for them to destroy my home? The children of the world are living well while our children are living in humiliation, dying and getting sick in this cold," he said.

In the West Bank, also dotted with refugee camps dating back to 1948, giant keys can be seen in various locations, part of an iconography of displacement whose meaning is understood by everyone there.

"The key represents the right of return," said Mohammed Said, head of the media office of a committee administering Qalandia refugee camp, between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

"The key is a metal object that can be made anywhere, but holding on to this key means that you have a dream to fulfil."

(Additional reporting by Ibraheem Abu Mustafa in Rafah and Raneen Sawafta and Ismael Khader in the West Bank; Writing by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Kevin Liffey)