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First Americans and other foreign nationals leave besieged Gaza

People enter the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip before crossing into Egypt on Wednesday. The U.N. says some 500 foreign passport holders were allowed to leave Gaza.
Mohammed Abed
/
AFP via Getty Images
People enter the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip before crossing into Egypt on Wednesday. The U.N. says some 500 foreign passport holders were allowed to leave Gaza.

Updated November 1, 2023 at 4:07 PM ET

RAFAH, the Gaza Strip — U.S. citizens were among the hundreds of foreign nationals who flooded through the gates at Gaza's border crossing with Egypt on Wednesday, marking the first time that people trapped inside Gaza since fighting broke out between Israel and Hamas have been allowed to leave.

"The situation remains extremely fluid, but this has been an important breakthrough," State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Wednesday.

Miller did not disclose the number of Americans among those who left Gaza. He said around 400 Americans are in touch with the State Department about their desire to leave and counting their family members the total is about 1,000 people.

U.S. citizens will be assigned specific departure dates and will be sent emails with "specific instructions about how to exit," Miller said.

Speaking in Minnesota on Wednesday, President Joe Biden said he had "personally spent a lot of time speaking with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu of Israel and President [Abdel Fattah el-] Sisi of Egypt and others to make sure that we could open this access for people to get out."

"We'll see more of this process going on in the coming days," Biden said. "We're working nonstop to get Americans out of Gaza as soon and safely as possible."

Earlier Biden posted a statement on X, formerly Twitter, saying "We won't let up working to get Americans out of Gaza."

Critically injured evacuated to Egypt

As the first groups of people left Gaza, ambulances from Egypt also entered the Rafah crossing to evacuate critically injured people from the besieged territory, where Israeli airstrikes have killed thousands since Oct. 7, when the militant group Hamas launched a brutal attack on Israeli towns.

The Gaza border crossing authority, which is run by the Hamas government in Gaza, announced early Wednesday that the Rafah border would be open for injured people and some foreign passport holders to exit the territory.

The authority published a list of people that it said were approved to exit. The list included the names and passport information of nearly 500 foreigners, most of them citizens of eight countries or who are associated with NGOs. It is possible the list of 489 foreign nationals is not comprehensive and more people will be added.

Palestinian health ministry paramedics check the travel documents of a person waiting to cross to Egypt at the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip on Wednesday.
Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Palestinian health ministry paramedics check the travel documents of a person waiting to cross to Egypt at the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip on Wednesday.

People departing Gaza Wednesday told NPR that the opportunity to escape the constant bombardment and ever-growing humanitarian crisis was bittersweet.

"It's not the greatest feeling, to be honest. It's not," said Jamila Muhaisen, a 24-year-old Bulgarian citizen. "I have family here. I have friends here. It's not OK to just leave a burning city."

Hundreds of Americans are still in Gaza

Some 500 foreign passport holders were allowed to leave on Wednesday, according to the U.N.

More than half of the people on the approved exit list were Jordanian citizens. Others were from Austria, Australia and Japan. Many foreign nationals whose names weren't on the list came to the border anyway on Wednesday out of hopes that they, too, would be allowed out.

But Gaza border officials turned them away at the gate.

"I'm going to keep on coming," said Wafa Elsaka, a Palestinian-American who was not allowed to exit Wednesday. "I don't want to hear, 'We gave you a chance and you didn't make it.'"

Dozens of Americans in Gaza recently sued the U.S. government, accusing it of unequal treatment and urging it to arrange an evacuation. They note that after fighting broke out, the State Department chartered cruise ships to carry Americans out of Israel. The U.S. also arranged numerous charter flights for U.S. citizens who wanted to leave Israel.

Aid groups get a chance to rotate staff in Gaza

Nearly 60 names on the approved list were associated with aid groups, including United Nations agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Seven of those listed were Americans.

U.N. agencies and aid groups have plans to rotate their staff in Gaza where possible. On Friday, a team of 10 ICRC staff, including surgeons and a weapons expert, entered Gaza via the Rafah crossing.

A journalist films a man driving a donkey-drawn cart carrying luggage outside the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip on Wednesday.
Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A journalist films a man driving a donkey-drawn cart carrying luggage outside the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip on Wednesday.

"We also were able to do some rotation of U.N. staff," Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, said on Wednesday, calling the border opening an important step in dealing with the humanitarian crisis.

The Gaza Border Authority said 81 "seriously injured" people would be taken to hospitals in Egypt for medical care. All of the patients are Palestinians, according to the Egyptian health ministry.

People sit in the waiting area at the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip before crossing into Egypt on Wednesday.
Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
People sit in the waiting area at the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip before crossing into Egypt on Wednesday.

"The World Health Organization welcomes Egypt's decision to accept 81 injured and sick people from the Gaza Strip for treatment," the WHO said in a statement, adding that its staff had helped Egypt establish a plan to evacuate and care for the critically wounded.

Egypt later said that only about 70 patients would be transferred, as the remaining patients had already died. The patients will be transported to hospitals in Egypt's Sinai peninsula, the Egyptian health ministry said.

More humanitarian aid is expected to reach Gaza

People look out through damaged windows at buildings destroyed during Israeli air raids in the southern Gaza Strip in Khan Yunis, Gaza. Entering the third week of the conflict, the Israeli army has expanded its military assault.
Ahmad Hasaballah / Getty Images
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Getty Images
People look out through damaged windows at buildings destroyed during Israeli air raids in the southern Gaza Strip in Khan Yunis, Gaza. Entering the third week of the conflict, the Israeli army has expanded its military assault.

On Tuesday, 59 trucks bearing aid entered Gaza — the largest number of trucks in one day since aid began crossing on Oct. 21. Israel continues to block the delivery of fuel. Dozens of additional trucks were expected to enter Gaza Wednesday.

The activity at the border took place as internet and phone service in Gaza went out again temporarily. The Palestinian telecommunications company Paltel attributed the outage to "international routes that were previously reconnected being disconnected again." Service has since resumed.

The announcements followed a 34-hour communications blackout in Gaza over the weekend that coincided with the start of Israel's "expanded" ground operations.

On Tuesday,Israeli airstrikes caused significant damage to a large refugee camp in Jabalia, just north of Gaza City. The Israeli military said it was targeting the area, which it says is a Hamas "stronghold," including underground tunnels and a command center.

A precise number of casualties and injuries isn't yet known; initial reports from the health ministry in Gaza said a large number of people were wounded or killed.

National strategy to counter Islamophobia

Biden has walked a fine line between supporting Israel's right to defend itself and urging it to take care to avoid civilian casualties as it goes after Hamas in Gaza. At the same time, he has tried to quell inflamed sentiments over the conflict at home.

On Wednesday the White House announced plans to develop the country's first national strategy on countering Islamophobia.

The Domestic Policy Council and National Security Council are working with community leaders, advocates and members of Congress on the plan, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement, noting the history of discrimination and attacks against people who are Muslim or who are perceived to be Muslim, such as Arabs and Sikh Americans.

The statement cited the killing of 6-year-old Palestinian American Wadea Al-Fayoume and the brutal attack on his mother, who were stabbed outside Chicago by a man now charged with hate crimes. Biden cited Wadea's killing in an Oval Office speech last month making a case for additional funding for Israel and for Ukraine's defense against Russia's invasion.

Becky Sullivan reported from Tel Aviv, and Anas Baba reported from Rafah. Daniel Estrin contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, Aya Batrawy contributed reporting from Dubai, and Bill Chappell and Michele Kelemen contributed reporting from Washington, D.C. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 1, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story misspelled Wafa Elsaka's name.
Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
Anas Baba
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.