9th Dec 2023


Trapped: the Palestinians trying to get back into Gaza

  • The Rafah border, seen from the Egyptian side. It is one of two main crossings points for inhabitants of Gaza, located along the 12km-long border that divides the Gaza Strip from Egypt (Photo: Free Gaza movement)
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As war rages in and above Gaza, Aylol Abu Elwan continues to be trapped in the Egyptian city of El-Arish, as he waits to be finally able to cross the Rafah crossing into the Gaza Strip — and be reunited with his family.

He is one of the thousands of Gazans for whom the war erupted while they were outside the Israeli-occupied territory, and whose situation now gets more hopeless by the day.

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Aylol had just crossed into Egypt the day before Hamas breached the barrier and attacked Israeli civilians on 7 October. He and his brother were heading to Cairo to receive a regular medical check — a journey that is common among Gazans lacking sufficient medical facilities in the Strip.

However, as the news of the Israeli retaliation started to be broadcast worldwide, the pair headed to the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing to go back home. While there, the place was hit by Israeli airstrikes.

"Thank God, we were not hurt," Aylol told EUobserver. "They [Egyptian authorities] told us to go to the town of El-Arish, but no help nor guidance was provided".

On the first days of the crossing's closure, many people slept on the street. Others stayed with Egyptian families, as the money they carried was insufficient to cover the unexpected accommodation expenses for a short trip that now surpasses a month and a week.

As of mid-November, more than 11,200 Palestinians have been killed as a result of Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip. Around 45 percent of the houses in Gaza have also been destroyed, according to a UN report.

The deepening humanitarian disaster, and the international pressure, forced Israel to partially open the Rafah crossing earlier this month, but allowing only the evacuation of some 1,000 foreign nationals and critically-injured people to Egyptian hospitals.

A larger evacuation of those injured has been rendered impossible as Israeli airstrikes have been targeting ambulances and the supplies of medical aid, making transportation in and out a life-threatening risk.

On 9 November, residents from the northern Gaza Strip and Gaza City were given a final warning to evacuate towards the south, as Israel prepared to enter with ground troops. Thousands of Palestinians had to walk kilometres on foot, leaving everything behind.

Gazans catatonic with dread

Alaa, Mariam, Yasmine, Shadha and Nada — a group of five colleagues who got stuck in Egypt, like Aylol — are barely coping with the escalating panic.

They all come from the north, close to Gaza City, and were at a conference about civil society in Cairo when the attack on the strip began.

As intensive bombardments and ground fighting intensify in the area close to their home, they are close to losing their minds as they watch the news from the Egyptian capital, Cairo, around 425km away.

They are so psychologically affected that her Egyptian friend Amina is the one explaining the story to us. They are unable to speak and want their identities to be protected.

Amina started a fundraiser for her friends as the five were unable to go back to Gaza or to get assistance from Egyptian authorities to sustain their livelihoods. "For the time being, they are staying in an apartment that was offered by a Sudanese guy they met in the street," Amina told EUobserver.

"They met as the girls were walking in the middle of the night without knowing where to go. They had been expelled from the previous apartment they were in, as they did not have enough money to pay for the rest of the month."

For now, the Sudanese landlord is allowing them to stay for free until they can get some money, but their concerns are far from over. "You would just find them staying at home, trying to contact their loved ones and to find people who can tell them about their families," Amina told us, with a deeply-preoccupied look.

"Surprisingly, they do want to go back to Gaza, one of them even said that she preferred to die with her family rather than just sit here and see what they are going through".

'No Western Union for Gaza tranfers'

This sentiment is felt most acutely by those Palestinians stuck in Egypt, but is an experience shared by many Gazans, including those living in Europe.

Mohammed Albayed is the owner of a small restaurant in Barcelona. But all of his family lives in Gaza, and 17 of his loved ones have been killed by Israeli attacks since the war began.

"I feel strong helplessness because, even if I want to help, I can't. I can't even send money from here to help them buy food and water, there is no Western Union nor international transfers with Gaza…" Mohammed tells Euobserver.

It has been 11 years since he last visited Gaza, but Mohammed had been planning to finally do so again this Christmas. As Rafah remains shut, it now seems unlikely — but he confesses wanting to go home more than ever before.

He is particularly worried about his brother Hazem, who was arrested outside Gaza when the war started — in Israel, where he was working.

Mohammed's brother is one of hundreds of Palestinian workers who, having become stuck in Israel since the violence began, were subjected to arbitrary detentions and humiliations, as a report by Amnesty International revealed.

A holder of European citizenship too, Mohammed says he feels scammed. "As these atrocities happen, Europe continues to support Israel and to be the US's puppet", he says angrily. "And in the meantime, we [European citizens] are all paying for this support; they are forcing me to pay for bombs against my country."

European countries have been arming Israel's offensives over Gaza during the last 10 years, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Since 7 October, these arms deals have been increasingly, notably from Germany, which has exported more than €300m of military equipment to Israel so far this year.

Even as some voices at the European level start advocating more outspokenly for an end to the Israeli aggression over Gaza, such as Belgium's deputy prime minister with her sanctions proposal, and France's Emmanuel Macron calling for a ceasefire, Mohammed says he does not believe in the EU anymore. "I just believe in being Palestinian, that is all."

Author bio

Bianca Carrera is a freelance writer and analyst specialising in the Middle Eastern and North Africa, environmental matters, and migration at Sciences Po Paris. She has written for The New Arab, Al Jazeera, Oxfam Intermón,, and others.


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