Brits returning from Gaza describe chaos and crisis at Rafah crossing: ‘They saw us as a protective presence’

Dozens of Brits remain in Gaza as the Rafah crossing opens again

Maira Butt
Tuesday 07 November 2023 19:15 GMT
Brit in Gaza describes desperate scene at Rafah crossing

A British doctor who found himself stranded in Gaza for weeks has finally returned to the UK to be with his family.

Dr Abdelqader Hammad, a consultant transplant surgeon with the Liverpool University Hospital, traveled to Gaza to carry out the only kidney transplants offered in the region when war broke out.

After crossing the Rafah border on Thursday he was one of the first foreign nationals allowed through to Egypt.

“There are chaotic scenes at the crossing,” he said. “People are scrambling in towards the gate and trying to force themselves through it.”

He said there were “thousands of people” at the Rafah border, while only a hundred or so were allowed through at a time.

Dr Hammad spent weeks stranded in Gaza after travelling to complete kidney transplants

Tensions between locals and foreign nationals were evident as people shouted “you’re leaving us, you’re abandoning us” when they crossed.

“They saw us as a protective presence, they thought that there would be no Israeli air strikes if we were there, but it’s not the case.” he said. This led to them being relocated one night as thousands of people surrounded a UN warehouse and attempted to break in to source food, water and other aid.

“There were 10,000 to 12,000 people around the warehouse where we stayed before getting to the crossing,” said Dr Hammad. “Tensions are high, people are desperate, they don’t have water or food, or sanitation facilities, we were considered foreigners there. There were 20-25 people with me, of different nationalities.”

More than a hundred Britons have now left Gaza but dozens still remain as Israeli and Egyptian governments negotiate the entry and exit of humanitarian aid, injured Palestinians and foreign nationals.

Zaynab Wandawi (left) with her mother Lalah Ali Faten (right) had both urged the government to move swiftly to ensure Brits in Gaza can come home

Dr Hammad reports that Egyptian officials had erected a field hospital on their side of the border which Israeli officials denied access to leading to delays in their processing.

“We were in no-man’s land while they negotiated,” he said.

Zaynab Wandawi, a schoolteacher from Manchester was one of the lucky foreign nationals to make it out of Gaza. Lalah Ali Faten, her mother, reported that Zaynab and her family had made it through to Egypt safely.

“It feels amazing. I woke up today, I felt lighter. It’s a good day,” she said. “This chapter has finally come to an end and that’s something I had no guarantees on in this last month.”

However, the relief was short-lived and bittersweet for the family as they had to leave members behind.

Zaynab, who was visiting Gaza for her brother-in-laws wedding, had to leave behind her father-in-law and their new bride as they did not have British nationality.

Dr Hammad reports chaotic scenes as local Palestinians run out of fuel, food and medicine

And she’s not the only one. Ms Ali Faten reports another acquaintance who had to make the decision to stay in Gaza with her child as her husband did not have a British passport.

“People are having to make decisions whether to break up the family or not,” she said. “It’s a harrowing decision, to stay or leave close family members behind - mothers, fathers, husbands, daughters. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. There’s an assumption that it could be the final goodbye.”

Yet everyone leaving the strip, has an acute awareness of the people they are leaving behind.

Dr Hammad said he has colleagues at Al Shifa hospital who have nowhere to go. They report that “Gaza is gone” when they speak to him. With parents who were expelled from the country in 1948, when Israel was founded, Dr Hammad reports the situation is a difficult and sad one.

“My dad was born in Jaffa,” he said. “We don’t know where his house is but we found the school he taught at when I visited. Now, roads, neighbourhoods, buildings are all flattened.”

Some injured were allowed through to Egypt

“There are no safe places, there is nowhere for people to go,” he said. “As a doctor, I’m concerned about the patients. My speciality is kidneys and there are 1200 people on dialysis in Gaza. If supplies and fuel are not allowed through, all of those people will die.”

Israel have largely ignored international calls for a humanitarian pause or a ceasefire despite the please of human rights organisations and the UN General Assembly who voted to pass a ceasefire last week.

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