Hundreds of foreign passport holders dashed through the gates at the Rafah crossing, where Gaza’s border meets Egypt on Wednesday, marking the first time that any people trapped inside Gaza since the start of the war between Hamas and Israel have been allowed to leave out of the coastal enclave.
Ambulances from Egypt also entered the Rafah crossing, which connects Gaza to Egypt, to evacuate critically injured people from the besieged territory, where Israeli airstrikes have killed more than 8 thousand people since Oct. 7th , when Hamas started its war against Israel with a surprise early-morning attack on civilians.
The Gaza border crossing authority, which is run by the Hamas government in Gaza, announced early Wednesday that the Rafah border would be open for injured people and some foreign passport holders to exit the territory.
The authority published a list of people that it said were approved to exit. The list included the names and passport information of nearly 500 foreigners, most of them citizens of eight countries or who are associated with NGOs. It is possible the list of 489 foreign nationals is not comprehensive and more people will be added.
People departing Gaza Wednesday told NPR reporters that the opportunity to escape the constant bombardment and ever-growing humanitarian crisis was bittersweet.
“It’s not the greatest feeling, to be honest. It’s not,” said Jamila Muhaisen, a 24-year-old Bulgarian citizen. “I have family here. I have friends here. It’s not OK to just leave a burning city.”
Many foreign nationals who were not on the list came to the border anyway on Wednesday morning out of hope that they, too, would be allowed out.
But Gaza border officials turned them away at the border gate.
“I’m going to keep on coming,” said Wafaa Abu Zaida, a Palestinian-American who was not allowed to exit Wednesday. “I don’t want to hear, ‘We gave you a chance and you didn’t make it.'”
Hundreds of American citizens have been trapped in Gaza since the war began. It was not yet clear when they would be allowed to leave. A U.S official who is not authorized to speak to the media about the matter told NPR they expect more foreigners to be allowed to exit Gaza in the coming days.
More than half of the entries on the list were Jordanian citizens. Other nationalities marked for exit included Austria, Australia and Japan.
Nearly 60 names were associated with aid groups, including United Nations agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Seven of those listed were Americans.
U.N. agencies and aid groups have plans to rotate staff where possible. On Friday, a team of 10 ICRC staff, including surgeons and a weapons expert, entered Gaza via the Rafah crossing.
The Gaza Border Authority also said 81 “seriously injured” people would be taken to hospitals in Egypt for medical care. All of the patients are Palestinians, according to the Egyptian health ministry.
“The World Health Organization welcomes Egypt’s decision to accept 81 injured and sick people from the Gaza Strip for treatment,” the WHO said in a statement, adding that its staff had helped Egypt establish a plan to evacuate and care for the critically wounded.
Egypt later said that only about 70 patients would be transferred, as the remaining patients had already died. The patients will be transported to hospitals in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, the Egyptian health ministry said.
Live television footage of the crossing showed ambulances from Egypt entering the border crossing terminal separating Egypt from Gaza.
On the Palestinian side of the border, crowds of people, including children, had gathered at the terminal, many of them carrying suitcases and some with donkey-pulled carts loaded with luggage.
In the early afternoon, border officials opened the gate at the Gaza side of the border, allowing at least 100 people into the border terminal to have their passports and other documents checked.
The Gaza side of the Rafah crossing is operated by local Hamas authorities, who are coordinating with Egypt and facilitating the exit of foreigners and wounded. Hamas, besides having a military wing that is fighting Israel in the war, also runs administrative services in Gaza — including at this international boundary crossing.
With all of Israel’s borders with Gaza closed since the Oct. 7th Hamas attacks that killed 1,400 people in Israel, the only operational crossing in and out of Gaza is Rafah, along the territory’s southern border with Egypt. Even that border has largely been closed; only aid trucks have been allowed through until now.
Israeli airstrikes have killed nearly 8,800 and injured 22,000 others, Palestinian officials say, and doctors at Gaza’s hospitals say they are overwhelmed. Hundreds of American citizens have been stranded in Gaza since the war began, along with thousands of other foreign passport holders.
On Tuesday, 59 trucks of aid entered Gaza — the largest number of trucks in one day since aid began crossing on Oct. 21. Israel continues to block the delivery of fuel. Dozens of additional trucks were expected to enter Gaza Wednesday.
The activity at the border took place as internet and phone service in Gaza went out again temporarily. The Palestinian telecommunications company Paltel attributed the outage to “international routes that were previously reconnected being disconnected again.” Service has since resumed.
Sources: NPR, news agencies.