Gaza: No way out, even for dual citizens
As the Israel–Hamas conflict enters its fourth week, crossings remain shut to Palestinians trying to flee. Those who hold dual citizenship feel abandoned
Asia Mathkour has been anxiously waiting for a call letting her know that the Rafah border crossing with Egypt is open for people to leave Gaza. The mother of two young children is a Palestinian-Canadian citizen who has lived with her family in Gaza since 2014. But so far, they haven't been able to leave the war zone.
"Two weeks ago, I got a call from the Canadians and they told me the Rafah border might open and that we should go there on our own responsibility," said Mathkour on the phone from Rafah. But her hopes were shattered a few hours later, when the crossing remained closed. "We feel alone, like nobody is helping."
Mathkour isn't alone with her fears and worries. Until now, no country has managed to evacuate any of its nationals or dual citizens from the Palestinian enclave, which has been under bombardment by the Israeli military for the last three weeks.
German officials have said there are few hundred Palestinian-Germans in Gaza, mostly dual nationals, without giving specific figures. On Wednesday, the White House said US President Joe Biden had renewed discussions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ensure safe passage of foreign nationals and of Palestinians with dual citizenship.
But the Rafah crossing, now the only route out of the territory ever since Israel imposed a total blockade of Gaza, has remained shut. Only some trucks carrying urgently needed humanitarian aid were allowed to enter the Gaza Strip in recent days from Egypt. And on Friday evening, Israel intensified its airstrikes and expanded its ground operations.
Israel sealed all its crossing points with Gaza after the attacks by militant group Hamas on 7 October, which killed more than 1,400 Israelis in the southern communities near the Gaza Strip. At least 229 people were taken captive and are being held as hostages in Gaza.
In response, Israel has pounded Gaza with air and artillery strikes for weeks. According to the Gaza health authorities controlled by Hamas, Israeli airstrikes have killed more than 7,000 people in Gaza.
Hamas is classified as a terrorist organisation by the European Union, the United States, Germany and other countries.
'Non-stop bombing from the tanks'
Mathkour and her family used to live in an area north of Gaza City, close to the Israeli border. When the war started, the family quickly moved to a hotel in the centre of Gaza City, which is an area that was considered relatively safe in previous fighting.
But this time, the Israeli military told the hotels they had to evacuate — along with all the residents of Gaza City, with the military telling Palestinians to leave their homes in the north and head to the southern part of the Gaza Strip.
Like tens of thousands of other residents, Mathkour and her family headed to the southernmost city of Rafah and stayed with relatives there. But they don't feel any safer.
"Last night it was hell. It was the worst throughout all nights that we've experienced since we've come to Rafah," said Mathkour on Friday. It was nonstop bombing from the tanks, and some close bombings in the area shook the whole house. You can imagine how terrified we were."
But a part of Mathkour also dreads the difficult choice she will have to make if the border crossing ever opens. Only those with dual citizenship and their closest relatives will be on the evacuation lists, and many of her friends and neighbours don't have this potential option.
"I feel bad also because people turn to me, asking me questions, because I am a dual national," said Mathkour. "But what about the others? Why is the world not looking at them?"
'Our focus, mind and spirit are in Gaza'
A world away in the Old City in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, Palestinian chef Izzeldin Bukhari is deeply worried about his relatives in Gaza, among them his sister.
"We are all very concerned what is happening in Gaza. Our focus, mind and spirit are in Gaza," he said. "7 a.m. in the morning is really a scary time, because we are waiting to hear from my family. It's very consuming, draining. There is no way to get it out of your mind."
Most of his mother's family lives in Gaza, but he hasn't been able to visit them for more than 16 years. Israel, and partially Egypt, have maintained a tight closure on the Hamas-ruled territory, and it's difficult for Palestinians from east Jerusalem or the occupied West Bank to get permits from Israeli authorities to enter Gaza.
Bukhari's family used to live in Rimal, an upscale neighbourhood in the centre of Gaza City, which has reportedly been hit hard during this war. "My aunt was killed in Rimal, she tried to evacuate three times but there were a lot of strikes, so they had to come back home," said Bukhari. "People are moving around going from one location to another, hoping there is a better shelter."
Most of his relatives moved to the southern Gaza Strip. But staying in touch has become more and more difficult, as communication networks have become weak due to electricity shortages and widespread infrastructure damage. "My sister there has different SIM cards. She keeps on trying, and we also try at different times of the day. In the beginning of the war, there was more communication."
Now, said Bukhari, it is much less, but "we just have to keep trying."
On Friday night, the Israeli army expanded its ground operation, and telephone and internet networks were largely disabled. A day earlier, Mathkour, on a intermittent phone line, said the life she once knew in Gaza is probably gone forever.
"All we are hoping for is to stay alive."