Home Features ‘Can’t sleep’: Trapped British nationals try to flee Israel’s Gaza bombing | Israel-Palestine conflict

‘Can’t sleep’: Trapped British nationals try to flee Israel’s Gaza bombing | Israel-Palestine conflict

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‘Can’t sleep’: Trapped British nationals try to flee Israel’s Gaza bombing | Israel-Palestine conflict

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Ibrahim Assalia pays a visit to Gaza each year to see his parents.

But this year, the visit was urgent: His father was diagnosed with blood cancer.

So Assalia, his wife and their six children – all British nationals – left their home in North London to help their ailing family member receive treatment in Jordan.

But Israel’s relentless bombing of the Gaza Strip following Hamas’s attack on Israeli soil on October 7 made it impossible for Assalia’s father to be able to leave the blockaded enclave.

He died last week as a result of receiving no medical care.

“He passed away on the 22nd of this month – during war,” Assalia told Al Jazeera, speaking by phone from the northern Gaza city of Jabalia.

When he went to the hospital to figure out how to bury his father, he was told to find any makeshift graveyard he could and put his body in, even if other bodies were already there.

Hospitals in the Gaza Strip have been functioning as overflowing morgues, as Israel’s near month-long bombardment has killed more than 9000 Palestinians.

“That’s how they bury the dead here,” said Assalia. “Like five, six, 10 in one grave.”

Assalia, a lecturer of media studies back in London, and a former English news presenter and editor for Palestine TV with the Palestinian Authority from 1998 to 2006, is trying to get his family out of Gaza.

They are among hundreds of foreign nationals and critically wounded Palestinians permitted to leave the strip since Gaza’s Rafah border crossing with Egypt opened on Wednesday for the first time since the war broke out.

Assalia received a phone call from the British Foreign Office late on Thursday, letting them know that their names were on a list of people approved to evacuate Gaza.

Palestinians holding foreign passports wait for permission to leave Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt
Palestinians with dual citizenship wait for permission to leave Gaza [Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters]

But Israeli shelling continues to deluge the route between the Rafah border and central Jabalia where he and his family fled to, after bombing intensified near their family home on the outskirts of the city.

“No taxi can take us there, simply because Israeli tanks are positioned in the area,” Assalia said.

“We heard that they shelled some civilian cars with passengers,” he added, explaining that he called six taxi companies on Friday morning who informed him of the shelling and told him it was too dangerous to make the hour-long journey along Gaza’s main Salah al-Din highway.

On Friday, Israel acknowledged that it had bombed a convoy of ambulances heading from Gaza City to the south, killing 15 people, according to Palestinian officials.

Trapped, the Assalia family shelters in one room with two other families who are also British nationals, all of them surviving on one meal a day of canned foods.

And their situation is only getting more desperate.

Assalia injured his finger after an Israeli air strike shattered a window near where he stood. His wife is running out of her epilepsy medication. And his 22-year-old daughter, a medical student, has been experiencing irritation on her skin she suspects could be due to Israel’s alleged use of white phosphorus munitions.

Human Rights Watch has accused Israel of using the chemical weapon on civilians in Gaza, which many experts say would be a violation of international law.

Grateful for visa

Back in the United Kingdom, Nasser Alshanti remains anxious about his daughter and her family, but is relieved to hear that they have managed to get out of Gaza.

Yosra Alshanti, her two young children and her husband Ibrahim Taha, crossed the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing, he said, and are now waiting to travel to Egypt’s capital, Cairo, before they board a flight to the UK.

But communicating with Alshanti’s daughter and her family, all British citizens except for Taha, has been difficult, said the Manchester-based university lecturer, due to communications blackouts on the strip.

It was Alshanti who managed to text his son-in-law Taha through WhatsApp about being on the list of people permitted to leave Gaza through the Rafah border, a message that lagged for a while before it finally got through.

While Yosra and her children will have no difficulty in entering the UK, Taha will need a special clearance as a non-British citizen to be able to – but it’s something Alshanti persuaded British authorities to allow, he said.

“No way my daughter can leave Gaza … without her husband,” is what Alshanti told British authorities, he told Al Jazeera. “She has two children and is pregnant.”

The concerned father is unsure what type of visa Taha will receive, and has been told it could include everything from a spousal visa to one issued under humanitarian protection.

Alshanti has watched the events in the Strip unfold over the last weeks with trepidation, wondering if his daughter and her family, who have been living there for the last seven years, will be able to get out safely.

“I cannot explain my feelings. I couldn’t sleep … I couldn’t focus during my lectures. All because my mind is totally engaged with what’s happening in Gaza,” he said.

Alshanti said he is grateful for the British government’s response in ensuring his family is safe, and for having added Taha to the evacuations list, despite hearing nothing from them for the first five days of the conflict.

“Each single day after five days, I received a call from the crisis team from London, asking me about my daughter,” he said, adding that a British border force team has flown from London to Cairo to give support to evacuating British nationals.

A Palestinian holding a foreign passport looks through her bag as she waits for permission to leave Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, at the Rafah border
A Palestinian holding a foreign passport looks through her bag as she waits for permission to leave Gaza, amid the continuing conflict between Israel and Hamas, at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip on November 3, 2023 [Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters]

Dispatches from the Rafah border

Salma Alrayyes was checking Facebook every chance she could, during brief periods of gaining access to the internet, once she learned the Rafah border was opening.

That’s where the Gaza border and crossings authority has been updating their list of foreign nationals permitted to leave each day.

Alrayyes saw her and her family’s name Thursday at midnight. By 9am the next day, they made their way to Rafah, a 20-minute journey from where they were sheltering.

Hours later, Alrayyes, her husband, their three kids and her brother-in-law and his family –  all British citizens – were still waiting to cross into Egypt after clearing through the Palestinian side of the border.

“We are going to Egypt now and then we’ll see what we are going to do,” she told Al Jazeera by phone from the Rafah border crossing. “But we had to leave … [we] are afraid of the war.”

Alrayyes had been living in the Strip for the last two years. Her home in Gaza City was destroyed due to Israeli air strikes.

As she and her family flee, her husband’s family who are not British nationals are left behind.

“We don’t know what we are going to do,” Alrayyes said repeatedly with despair, cutting the phone call short as Egyptian border authorities summoned her and her family forward.

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