Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their families who had desperately hoped to leave the besieged territory of Gaza on the weekend were unable to do so after a border crossing into Egypt – the only way out – was closed again.
Global Affairs Canada (GAC) said on Sunday that it had no information about when the Rafah border crossing would be reopened and that the timeline for evacuations over the next few days was uncertain. Some individuals in Gaza say the department has indicated they could get out early this week.
Late last week, the crossing was open for limited evacuations to allow some foreign passport holders and their dependants, as well as some wounded Gazans, out of the Palestinian territory.
According to Global Affairs, nearly 450 eligible individuals are on a list that has been communicated by GAC to regional partners. Canada has one of the largest contingents of foreign nationals in Gaza.
The decision to suspend evacuations took place after a deadly strike on an ambulance in Gaza, Egyptian official sources told Reuters. The New York Times has reported that evacuations of Americans and other foreign nationals were delayed because of efforts from the Islamist militant group Hamas to get their wounded fighters through the Rafah crossing.
Mansour Shouman, a Canadian who moved with his family from Calgary to Gaza last year, had hoped to get his wife and children out, but he would stay behind to assist in humanitarian efforts. However, on Sunday he said he was no longer sure that getting out of Gaza would be possible.
“For us, mentally, we think we’re going to be here until this war ends,” he said, adding that he did not think that the Canadian government can do much.
“No aid is coming,” he said. “No one is leaving.”
On Oct. 7, Hamas attacked Israel, killing more than 1,400 people and abducting more than 240 others. Israel responded by declaring war, bombarding Gaza and launching a staged ground invasion. The Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza says more than 9,700 people have been killed in the war.
GAC said Saturday that it had been informed by the Israeli authorities that Canadians would be able to leave Gaza through the Rafah border crossing “in the coming days.”
Canadians have been asked to have their travel documents at hand and be ready to travel on short notice, the department added.
“The Government of Egypt will allow those who cross into Egypt from Gaza to stay in the country for a maximum of 72 hours,” it said.
“Our consular officials will be on the Egyptian side of the border to facilitate transportation to Cairo by bus and help with onward travel to Canada.”
Global Affairs said Canada would provide accommodation, food and basic necessities in Cairo to those who cross into Egypt. Because of the fluidity and complexity of the situation, the department said Canadians “should be prepared for significant delays at the border.”
Nael Alhalees, a Canadian with family members in central Gaza, said Sunday that even if the border crossing were to reopen, a trek to the border would be far too dangerous.
“It’s at a minimum a 45-minute drive by car,” he said in an interview from Burlington, Ont. “Going without a ceasefire – it’s nearly impossible that you’re not going to get shot at or bombed.”
Until a pause in hostilities is called that would allow for trapped civilians to leave, Global Affairs Canada’s communications about a border crossing are “ridiculous and irresponsible,” he said.
“You’re leaving it for us to maintain safe passage,” Mr. Alhalees said. “That’s not our responsibility – under gunfire, or under massive, random bombardments. It’s not our responsibility.”
In the meantime, Mr. Alhalees said his family is struggling to sustain itself.
They have been reduced to one meal and one drink a day, and his 13-year-old daughter has lost 13 pounds, he said. One of the family’s cats, a white Persian, is now grey because of the dust and rubble.
“Every second that passes by and my family is not safely escorted to me, there is a possibility of not seeing them ever again,” Mr. Alhalees said.
Reem Sultan, a Palestinian-Canadian based in London, Ont., said that a friend of hers, Dr. Ehab Bader, is currently trapped in Gaza.
In an interview Sunday, she said that the level of communication coming from the department amounts to a “complete failure of Global Affairs Canada.”
“They have risked the lives of Canadian citizens on the ground,” he said. “They have put them in danger.”
Ms. Sultan, who was among a group of Palestinian Canadians who recently met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said her family members will not qualify for an evacuation.
Canada must call for a ceasefire, she said through tears.
“The only thing I’m going to say to [the] Prime Minister is that we’re complicit in what’s happening if we don’t call for a ceasefire,” she said. “We have to stop it.”
Jon Allen, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel, said Sunday that one has to have a “huge amount of sympathy” for Canadians who have family in Gaza and Canadians who are there and desperate to get out.
It is not only the Canadians who cannot get out of Gaza, Mr. Allen said, adding that there are a lot of people seeking to leave. There are people from 27 countries in the European Union, Britain and nationals from many other countries, he said.
“I assure you as soon as Global Affairs or somebody else knows, they will communicate and they will let them know,” Mr. Allen said. “But they don’t know.”
The lack of information available is not because the government is hiding something, Mr. Allen said.
“I am assuming they are waiting to be told themselves and they don’t have control over the situation.”
On Saturday, Mr. Trudeau and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed “ongoing efforts to get foreign citizens out of Gaza.”
A readout from the Prime Minister’s Office said that Mr. Trudeau “thanked Prime Minister Netanyahu for Israel’s assurances that Canadians in Gaza will be able to leave in the coming days.”
It also said that Mr. Trudeau expressed Canada’s support for Israel and its right to defend itself while reaffirming “the importance of upholding international humanitarian law and making every effort to protect Palestinian civilians.”
Meanwhile, protesters in more than two dozen Canadian cities took to the streets on the weekend, calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Holding Palestinian flags and chanting “free Palestine” and “ceasefire now,” the protesters also demanded an end to restrictions on humanitarian aid allowed into the territory.
With reports from The Canadian Press