Between 9 and 10 pm last night, Egyptian authorities opened the Rafah border crossing and the trapped group was allowed to enter. The group received bread, water and slept on chairs at the Egyptian gate hall.
I spoke to Nalan al-Sarraj via Facebook video chat while she was at the Egyptian gate hall early this morning. The internet connection she was using repeatedly cut out, so I have edited those sections out of the recording. I have transcribed her words below, however I suggest listening to the recording.
Nalan al-Sarraj: Most of the people with us, their phones died. My phone was already dead. My sister’s phone was already dead. The whole situation was getting even scarier. Then it got worse because most of the people started fearing that there is no hope for us to enter the Egyptian border. We started thinking of leaving and we actually felt that we were in grave danger because we heard that a car had been targeted by the Israeli forces. From the radio, we were very positive that the Israeli forces were in Rafah. The only source we had, which wasn’t all that clear, that it was really bad over there.
The airstrikes got even worse. They were even closer. There was no electricity or water. There were children and women. We were trying to survive over there by ourselves. The number of people got a little bit smaller. We were trying to encourage each other. Then when the airstrikes got worse and it became dark, that’s when I really can’t remember because the horror that we saw was unbelievable. We started holding each other. We started praying and just calling. It felt like our last minutes. For the first time throughout almost the whole month in Gaza I hadn’t felt that, where I’m totally out of hope that I would live. And that is exactly what I felt. The scene that I can’t forget, is when we started running for our lives, just doing whatever we can because we had to evacuate the Palestinian border. We were running and running and we found out that they had already evacuated and the Egyptian border was closed. That feeling — the number of people that were running on foot. I just remember my sister saying “Go, go!” Everyone just encouraging each other to go and not look back. That feeling in her voice, that is basically what I was hearing with every explosion. Everyone was just holding each other. We were out of hope, just totally out of hope. Then the airstrikes were near and far. We didn’t expect anything from the Israelis, of course. We were completely out of connection. We thought the media had forgot about us — nobody cared and nobody knew if we were still alive.
They were saying from some sources that they might open the border so we have this little tiny hope. Around 9 or 10 pm, they opened the border. The Egyptians were really nice, actually. They let us in and were trying to help us as much as possible. Everybody was just crying. None of us believed that we actually survived. That feeling is just unbelievable. People were just cheering for each other, holding each other and crying. Like you’re alive, you know?
We entered the Egyptian hall. They were doing all of the necessary paperwork. There is no traveling from Rafah border to Cairo because of the dangerous situation in Sinai. So we need to wait for the next day which is today. Hopefully we’re going to have a better trip than what happened last night.
Most of the people, around 50 or 60, we slept on the chairs. We didn’t care because we felt that it’s safer over here. The [Israeli military] can’t really target us over here.
Dan Cohen: Did you get anything to eat? Did they give you any water?
Just some bread and some water. We had a chance to go to the restroom, clean up and talk to our friends and family — just to tell them that we are still alive. Then we heard that exactly where we were was targeted and there was a fire over there. Everybody was just in shock that we could have been dead. We felt really blessed, of course.
Friday morning, before before a 72-hour ceasefire was slated to go into effect, the Israeli military clashed with Hamas fighters in Rafah. Israel alleged that Hamas captured a 23-year-old Israeli soldier named Hadar Goldin, 23. Gaza’s ruling political party expressed conflicting sentiments, eventually denying responsibility.
In response to the alleged capture, Israel nullified the ceasefire and began heavy bombardment of the southern Gaza city of Rafah, killing 50 and wounding more than 220 people.
A group of at least 70 Palestinian civilians, dozens of whom have foreign passports, attempted to flee to Egypt through the Rafah border crossing, only to find it closed and deserted. Unable to cross into and Egypt or return to Gaza, the group is currently trapped in between.
Since the military coup that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, Egyptian authorities have kept the Rafah crossing almost entirely closed. While collaborating with Israel to destroy cross-border tunnels, the Egyptian coup regime has allowed a tiny number of the more than 8,000 Gazans wounded in Israel’s assault the last weeks to enter Egypt.
Throughout the day, Lia Tarachansky of The Real News Network and I spoke to Nalan al-Sarraj, a blogger and commentator who is among the stranded group.
“My mother has a Libyan passport. Based on that, my sister and I may be able to enter Egypt,” al-Sarraj said.
She described an extremely dangerous and unpredictable scene where they had little water, no food and no access to shelter.
“The situation over here is very scary. We’re more than 70 people, mostly women and children, and mostly they have foreign passports, half of which are Egyptian. I can see smoke and fire, and we can see the explosions very close to where we are. Israel has declared Rafah a closed area so we can’t even get out of this place,” she said.
Al-Sarraj told us that among the trapped are dozens of foreign nationals, including Jordanians, seven Norwegians, and one Bulgarian.
In numerous telephone calls with Jordanian, Egyptian, Norwegian, German, Israeli, and American embassies, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations, Tarachansky and I informed them of the emergency. Twice, I was told by Egyptian authorities to “call back on Sunday.”
In a conversation with the Jordanian embassy in Cairo, Lia Tarachansky spoke with a representative who, in fluent English, identified himself only as “Muhammad.” When Tarachansky informed the representative of the emergency, he claimed that he does not speak English and told her to “call back on Sunday.”
The IDF Spokesperson’s office was unaware of the situation and did not comment.
After hours of futile phone calls with embassies, we spoke to Nalan al-Sarraj again at 6:30 pm. The group was witnessing explosions from airstrikes and tanks shells only 100 meters away. As Nalan al-Sarraj described the ordeal, she informed us that a private car who had left the Rafah crossing in an attempt to drive back to Gaza was hit by an Israeli airstrike.
At one point, al-Sarraj told us, an Egyptian representative spoke to the trapped group. He informed them that Egypt takes no responsibility for their situation before he again locked the crossing.
Both Nalan al-Sarraj and her sister’s cell phone batteries have died since our last communication. While it remains unclear what the fate of the group trapped between the two borders will be, al-Sarraj pleaded with anyone who could hear her message:
“Talk to people, talk to media, talk to embassies! Maybe that will change something!”