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Dozens of Americans leave Gaza under evacuation deal, but crossing remains precarious

Chaotic scenes at Gaza’s border as dozens of Americans leave the war-torn strip. Bel Trew in Tel Aviv, Richard Hall in New York City, Andrew Feinberg in Washington DC and Josh Marcus in San Francisco report

Bel Trew,Richard Hall,Andrew Feinberg,Josh Marcus
Friday 03 November 2023 15:31 GMT
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79 US citizens and family members exited Gaza and arrived safely in Egypt, says John Kirby

At least 79 American dual citizens have crossed into Egypt from Gaza over the last two days as part of a deal brokered by the US, Israel, Egypt and Qatar, which acted as a mediator with Hamas.

US president Joe Biden told reporters in the Oval Office that 74 “American folks, dual citizens” had been able to leave the territory on Thursday. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby later added that five US citizens had left a day earlier, but added that the “numbers are changing in real-time.”

The news comes one day after Mr Biden declared that he had “secured safe passage” for wounded Palestinians and foreign nationals to exit Gaza, which has been under heavy Israeli bombardment in recent weeks.

Palestinian officials in Gaza said that 384 foreign nationals had left via the Rafah crossing on Thursday, along with 21 wounded. More than 400 US citizens have been cleared to leave under the deal, according to a list of names seen by The Independent. But precisely how many will be able to make it to the Rafah crossing, on the border with Egypt, is unclear, due to the intensity of Israeli bombing all over the Gaza strip.

British Palestinian surgeon Ghassan Abu Sitta said that the Israeli army had opened fire on ambulances carrying wounded people along a coastal road that was declared safe by the Israeli army on Thursday. Video footage released a few days ago showed an Israeli tank firing on a car on Salalhuddin road: the main artery from the north to the south in Gaza. The Independent requested comment from the Israeli army about the alleged attack on the coastal road.

Humanitarian aid arrives in Gaza through Rafah crossing

Responding to a question from The Independent about the potential danger faced by US citizens trying to make it to the Rafah crossing, Mr Kirby said: “We believe that the vast vast majority of American citizens who we know in Gaza are down there. But I can’t tell you with certitude that there’s not family members elsewhere that haven’t made their way down, or can’t make their way down.”

He added that the State Department was in “direct contact” with all American families in Gaza and “keeping them informed” about when they can leave.

But one US dual citizen reached by The Independent said they had not heard anything from the State Department until yesterday, despite reaching out to US consulates across the region.

“I have not received any kind of support,” the 19-year-old Palestinian-American, who asked to remain anonymous, wrote in a message. “I have sent so many emails to American consulates in Jerusalem, Istanbul and even in Cairo telling them we need their help.”

The US citizen is travelling with their parents and siblings, but they are the only member of their family with US citizenship, which has complicated matters. They were told by the State Department on Wednesday that their name would be added to the list of names approved to leave in the coming days, but they are unsure if her family will be able to leave.

“We barely have something to eat, no water, electricity, internet connection and even medicine as my parents got injured due to the bombs around us after evacuating to a shelter in a safe place,” they said.

There have been chaotic scenes at the border for the last two days as hundreds of desperate civilians waited to find out if their names were on the list of evacuated. Wael Abo Mohsin, a Palestinian official in Gaza, said many different nationalities arrived only to find no one from their country was on the list.

Some Palestinian-American families have spent days in a state of limbo waiting near the border crossing. Massachusetts family Abood Okal, Wafaa Abuzayda, and their one-year-old son Yousef were visiting family in Gaza when the war began.

Before the evacuations started on Wednesday, they received multiple updates from the State Department that they would be able to cross at Rafah, only to arrive and find it sealed off to those fleeing the war. They waited in a home with multiple families and a dwindling supply of food as explosions, likely from IDF air strikes, went off within less than 1000 metres of them.

An Israeli artillery unit fires during a military drill in the annexed Golan Heights near the border with Lebanon on November 2 (AFP via Getty Images)

“Time of the essence nowadays,” Mr Okal told The Independent in a voice memo last week. “All it takes is one missile, one airstrike to miss its target and be too close to where you are, and that has happened before, where we’re staying, and that would be it.”

The Independent lost contact with the family seven days ago.

A senior administration official told The Independent that the list of names cleared by Hamas to leave is just those who’ve been cleared as of today, 2 November. The official also pointed out that the list is limited to US citizens, even though others connected to the US who lack citizenship — including “green card” holders and family members of both categories — may be in the process of being cleared to cross.

The Israeli government said on Wednesday that all foreign nationals and injured residents of Gaza are free to evacuate.

“We opened Rafah [...] and allowed the foreigners to evacuate. This, we hope, will continue the next few days,” said Colonel Elad Goren, a spokesperson for COGAT, the Israeli defence agency that usually liaises with Palestinians, in a briefing with reporters on Wednesday evening.

Israel strikes Gaza, ground troops advance on Gaza City

Authorities on the Egyptian side of the crossing from southern Gaza have a list of hundreds of names of foreign nationals that have been cleared by all sides.

"The countries gave us the names of their residents that they want to evacuate from [Gaza]. We checked each and every name,” he said, adding that injured Palestinians “who are not part of terror” are also allowed to cross into Egypt for medical treatment.

The US previously estimated that 500-600 Americans have been trapped in Gaza since Israel declared a “total siege” of the territory and launched an offensive in response to a massacre by Hamas of more than 1,400 people. More than 8,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli bombing in the time since, including more than 3,700 children.

Speaking aboard Air Force One on Wednesday, Mr Kirby called the opening of the Rafah crossing “an important first step in a process that we expect to see continue over the coming days” and a “significant breakthrough” that was a “direct result of weeks of effort and personal diplomacy” on the part of Mr Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Special Envoy David Satterfield.

“It was certainly a focus of the President’s calls with [Egyptian] President Sisi and [Israeli] Prime Minister Netanyahu on Sunday, where this arrangement was discussed in detail,” he added.

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