Rishi Sunak under pressure as hundreds of Britons remain stranded in Gaza

Around 200 understood to be trapped in the besieged enclave

Kate Devlin,Bel Trew,Maira Butt
Thursday 02 November 2023 20:06 GMT
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Foreign nationals stuck in Gaza head towards Rafah crossing

Rishi Sunak is facing calls to do more to secure the escape of British nationals trapped in Gaza, with hundreds still stranded after a second day of evacuations.

Relatives of those stuck and senior politicians called for action after no one travelling on a British passport was included in a daily list of those allowed to cross into Egypt.

The prime minister has promised that the rescue of Brits inside the besieged enclave is a “top priority”.

But while foreign nationals from other countries including Belgium, Japan and the United States were among 500 names on the list, the UK was omitted. The Foreign Office later said some had made it through, though it would not release numbers.

Just two British nationals were on Wednesday’s list, while around 200 British nationals are understood to be stuck in Gaza.

Palestinians and foreign aid workers wait to cross into Egypt at Rafah in the Gaza Strip (Fatima Shbair/AP)

One Labour frontbencher accused Mr Sunak of lacking the “sway” to get UK citizens out of Gaza while the families of those trapped said the government was “falling short”.

Speaking from her home in Manchester, Lalah Ali Faten told The Independent about the “living nightmare” her life had become since her daughter, Zaynab Wandawi, found herself stranded in Gaza after visiting for a wedding.

“It’s devastating. It’s a living nightmare not just for my daughter and her in-laws witnessing the horrors of war but for us as well not knowing from moment to moment whether they will come back. I would say to Rishi Sunak: ‘Prioritise getting your citizens out of a war zone’ – why is that not a priority?” she said.

Ms Ali Faten said she was happy for those who were released yesterday, saying it must be a “great relief” for them and their families. However, she urged the government to do more to secure the release of the hundreds still stranded.

“I’ve called the hotline and they say they’ve done all they can, they’ve handed the names of Brits over. I feel they could do a lot more to ensure that they get out. We don’t know how long the crossing will be open. They’re falling short.”

Earlier, cabinet minister Michelle Donelan insisted the government was trying to get UK nationals out “as quickly as we possibly can”.

She said Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and the prime minister had both said “multiple times it is our top priority to get those British nationals out as quickly as we possibly can”.

Labour’s Jess Phillips, the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding, said: “We are not seeing any British names being put on to the list of those who are crossing ... It does not seem that the British government are having that much sway in getting their people out to Egypt.”

Palestinians with dual nationality register to cross to Egypt from the Gaza Strip

She had constituents still stuck in Gaza, she said, who have had to move seven times to avoid bombardments and were rapidly running out of water.

Mr Sunak’s conversations with Israeli leaders and others did not seem to be making a difference, she said. “We have no idea if it will be the next few days, this week. What if the crossing closes? … (they) have just been told ‘just wait’,” she told the BBC’s World at One.

Another Labour MP, Stella Creasy, said those stuck “need assistance and clarity and we need answers about what the UK government is doing to make sure our citizens are safe”. She said Mr Cleverly “urgently needs to go back to Egypt and represent our constituents – to ensure they aren’t left behind”.

The Israeli authorities said countries with people trapped in Gaza had produced a list of names of those they wanted to evacuate.

Col Elad Goren, spokesperson for the Israeli defence agency that usually liaises with Palestinians, said: “We checked each and every name.

“And after checking it, those who are not a part of terror, we gave the list to the Egyptians, and they’re the ones to evacuate the foreigners from Gaza to Egypt.”

When asked if Israel found any of those with foreign passports were associated with Hamas or other designated terrorist organisations, he added: “I cannot respond to this question.”

When asked about the lack of British citizens on the list Col Goren replied: “I am not aware of this. All foreigners can evacuate.”

Humanitarian aid arrives in Gaza through the Rafah crossing

On Wednesday, two UK aid workers were among hundreds of foreign nationals able to flee through the Rafah crossing.

Dozens of seriously injured Palestinians were also allowed to leave the strip for the first time since the war between Israel and Hamas began nearly a month ago.

Mr Sunak has thanked Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for his efforts to allow the first British nationals to escape through the Rafah border, the only crossing to Gaza not controlled by Israel.

Ms Donelan, the science secretary, said the prime minister and Mr Cleverly were continuing efforts to get more Britons out.

“The Foreign Office have said that some people have managed to get over that border and we are anticipating that there will be more coming,” she told GB News.

“There is a list of people that are British nationals – 200 I believe is the figure that I have – and our focus is on getting them out as quickly as we possibly can.”

But she also stressed the challenges in getting those trapped out of the enclave.

“We’re not in full control of that border, as you know, so it is very difficult,” she added.

The Foreign Office said it has agreed a list of British nationals who want to leave Gaza with Egyptian and Israeli authorities.

The UK has already sent Border Force teams to Cairo in anticipation that nationals would be allowed to leave the strip.

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