RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Dozens of Palestinians with foreign passports crossed through the war-torn Gaza Strip’s only exit for the second straight day Thursday, escaping Israel’s suffocating siege into the empty Egyptian desert. But the evacuation rush left families divided by citizenship status in painful limbo.
Nizar, a 41-year-old aid worker from Gaza City, gently shook his children awake at dawn and drove to Gaza’s southern Rafah crossing with his wife, 8-month-old son and 6-year-old daughter, Zainab — a dangerous road trip even from where they’d sought refuge in central Gaza.
The bombardment didn’t stop and they didn’t know what awaited them at the border. All they knew was that the quirk of history that led to Zainab’s birth in San Francisco gave her American citizenship and the family its only ticket out of a war that has ravaged Gaza, killed thousands of Palestinians and given his once bubbly daughter panic attacks and nightmares.
Nizar, who declined to give his last name for fear that it could hurt his chances of getting out, jumped up when he heard Hamas authorities call Zainab’s name from the loudspeaker at the crowded Rafah terminal. But border officials quickly told him that U.S. citizens were the only ones allowed to evacuate and that the rest of his family couldn’t cross into Egypt. Many families, they said, had been separated for this reason.
“It’s just total confusion, nobody understands what is happening,” Nizar said. “There are just tons of families who are very confused and unable to join their relatives and leave.”
Even as the weeks of heated negotiations between Israel, Hamas and Egypt over the evacuation of foreign nationals at the crossing bore fruit Wednesday for the first time since the war started, the continuing chaos and heavy military restrictions reflected the difficulty of diplomacy over Rafah — now the only way in or out of Gaza for civilians.
The U.S. embassy in Israel didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the issue of families being separated at the border. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was set to visit Israel on Friday to discuss the conflict.
The United States has publicly blamed Hamas for the delay in reopening Rafah, while neighboring Egypt, wary of receiving an influx of Palestinian refugees, has blamed Israel for repeatedly bombing the crossing and imposing tight controls. On Thursday, an Israeli bomb landed near the Rafah terminal, killing and wounding several people.
“A bomb came down and almost exploded everything,” Jammal Qaoud, an American citizen, said from the border. “I have a heart condition and I could collapse at any time.”
“I’m just trying to get to the other side and be safe,” he added. Qaoud, who didn’t face the divided family citizenship issue, eventually made it into Egypt, one of several hundred people to pass through the crossing Thursday.
The list of those who would be allowed to leave that was distributed to dual nationals trapped in Gaza on Thursday included scores of Americans, as well as citizens from a handful of other countries ranging from Switzerland to Sri Lanka.
How the names landed on that list and in that order remained a mystery. Palestinians struggled to get answers.
Jason Shawa, a Seattle-born translator whose wife and daughters don’t have American passports and weren’t on the list, said the entire process was bewildering. When he finally reached a U.S. State Department employee by phone Thursday for answers, the man on the line couldn’t fathom that Shawa was even calling from Gaza.
“He was so shocked he didn’t even know what to say,” Shawa said. “It’s like we take a back seat because we’re not Americans — (because) we’re brown Americans.”
More wounded Palestinians were also expected to cross Rafah for treatment in Egypt on Thursday after nearly 80 sick and seriously injured patients were evacuated to hospitals the day before. Foreign staff from international aid organizations also were evacuated Wednesday.
As the day wore on and heat baked the expanse of sand and concrete, the crowd grew, even as many, including Nizar, Zainab and their family, headed back into the war zone.
Ward Abu Shaaban, a pregnant 28-year-old American citizen who spent years in Houston, kept waiting at the gate Thursday even though border officers told her that her husband, who doesn’t have a foreign passport, would not be able to join her and their 3-year-old daughter into Egypt.
“I don’t care that I’m on the list, I cannot go without my husband, I will not leave my husband,” Abu Shaaban said, the panic rising in her voice as she watched authorities call out name after name.
Then, later Thursday afternoon, she heard her own.
Palestinians at the crossing with the family said that after hours of discussions, Abu Shaaban and her husband made the wrenching decision to separate.
Abu Shaaban and her toddler daughter handed over their travel documents and strode across the border, into whatever awaited them in self-exile. Her husband, a 31-year-old electrician from Gaza City, walked the other way alone.
DeBre reported from Jerusalem.