Rafah, Gaza – Nineteen-year-old Yousif Abu Shaaban and four immediate family members had been waiting for days for their evacuation from the besieged Gaza Strip through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.
An American passport holder, Abu Shaaban was told by officials from the United States consulate that he and his family were eligible to leave the strip. The family was staying at a school near the Rafah crossing, seeking a way out of the enclave away from Israel’s relentless bombing campaign that began on October 7.
US officials had advised Gaza’s Palestinian American dual citizens — who number between 500 and 600 — to move closer to the crossing for possible safe passage into Egypt.
Residents were told they had a five-hour window last Saturday to evacuate, but by the end of the day, no one made it through. A week later, they remain in limbo, unsure of when they will be able to leave — even as Israel’s bombing continues, and a ground invasion of Gaza looms.
On October 21, US officials said they had received information that the crossing could be opened to allow dual citizens to leave — as the first aid trucks from Egypt entered Gaza.
But it’s already too late for Abu Shaaban and his family: The delay in evacuations cost his 14-year-old sister’s life.
On Thursday, after three days at the school, the family returned home to Gaza City to grab a few more of their belongings.
“It became late and we decided to sleep in the house and return to Rafah the next morning. Suddenly, we heard shelling. We went to a room on the ground floor. It was not long before our metal front door was bombed inwards, and the shelling was taking place at our doorstep.”
“My sister was martyred. Who will bring her back to me?” Abu Shaaban, who also sustained injuries from shrapnel to his face, told Al Jazeera from where the family’s home is located.
His 44-year-old father, who is blind, was severely injured in his arm as a result of the shelling that took place at 11pm (20:00 GMT) at night. “I am the only one sustaining my father financially. He does not move without me. He is blind, and now his entire arm is gone.”
His eight-year-old sister, Jihan, was also injured.
Abu Shaaban was born in the US when his parents moved there so his father could complete a master’s degree.
“This is the fault of the negligence from the embassy and all the sides that are supposed to be responsible for me. I demand an international inquiry into why this happened to me, to my house – why my sister was martyred,” said Abu Shaaban. “I’m going to take them to court.”
“On several days, the representatives in the American consulate would call me and tell me to come to the crossing. I would go — I would risk my life and go — from Gaza City to the border crossing,” he explained.
British authorities also called on their nationals in Gaza to move south and sent them messages telling them to be on alert in case the crossing opened. Up to 60,000 British citizens live “in Israel or Gaza,” according to the BBC.
Navigating ‘the danger zone’
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Rafah, another dual US citizen said last week that the situation was “hopeless”.
“I am a US citizen. My country told me to come here. We went through hell coming here. It’s a war zone going from the middle of Gaza all the way to the border of Gaza. And now we’re going home empty-handed,” he said.
“We don’t know what’s going on, why we were told to come, and when we are going to get out of here.”
The man said he had a message for US Secretary of State Antony Blinken: “If we were Israelis, would this happen to us? American Israelis already left. They leave every day.
“Palestinian Americans cannot leave. Neither can Palestinians of other citizenships, which are plenty here. They all have women, children, elderly people. They can’t keep travelling through the danger zone to get to the border,” he continued.
“One single shell could kill us.”
At least 4,137 Palestinians, including more than 1,500 children and 1,000 women, have been killed in Israeli air strikes on the besieged Gaza Strip since the latest escalation began on October 7. Some 13,000 others have been injured.
Israel began its bombing campaign on the enclave after fighters from the Hamas armed resistance movement launched a surprise attack on Israel, killing an estimated 1,400 people.
Al Jazeera correspondent Hisham Zaqout gained access to the Rafah crossing last week. He said preparations are being made for the entry of aid into Gaza, but there are still several obstacles.
“Israeli raids have left large holes on the main road that will be used by conveys to deliver aid to the Gaza Strip, making it impossible for buses or aid trucks to use it, but Egyptian teams are currently paving over them so it will be functional again,” said Zaqout. Israel has bombed the Rafah crossing at least four times.
“We are also expecting teams from UNRWA to arrive to make sure the crossing is ready for the aid to go through,” he continued, referring to the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees.
“Another problem is the delivery of the aid inside Gaza. The UN will conduct talks with the Egyptians, UNRWA officials and the Israeli side on this.”
Some one million Palestinians inside the Strip have been displaced from their homes over the past two weeks, and many are suffering from the dire humanitarian situation there. On October 9, Israel announced a “total blockade” to cut off supplies to Gaza, and there is now a severe shortage of water, food, electricity and fuel.