When Swiss citizen Ibrahim al-Qarnaoui set off for a short trip to visit family in the Gaza Strip earlier this month, he thought he’d only be there for a few days.
But after border crossings out of the besieged Palestinian enclave were shut in response to a deadly Hamas attack on Israel just over a week ago, he and other foreign passport holders have been stuck in the territory, currently facing heavy Israeli bombardment.
“The embassy told us yesterday to come to Rafah,” he said of Gaza’s only border crossing not controlled by Israel, which Egypt has kept closed, preventing any Palestinians or foreigners from fleeing.
“But the border crossing did not open,” said the 77-year-old, surrounded by around 30 people with foreign passports in hand waiting near the terminal.
Israel, which controls the other two crossing points into Gaza, has declared a “complete siege” of the coastal enclave, cutting off food, water, fuel and electricity supplies to the territory’s 2.4 million people.
On Sunday, Israel’s energy minister said water supplies had been resumed to the south of the enclave.
After news broke on Saturday that the United States reached an agreement with Egypt and Israel to allow American citizens to leave Gaza via Rafah, foreign passport holders have flocked to the border crossing.
But thus far foreign citizens, including Americans, have not been able to pass, amid reports that Egypt will only allow foreigners once international aid is allowed into Gaza.
– Mass displacement –
Huge numbers of residents of northern Gaza have amassed in the south of the Strip — where the Rafah crossing is located — after Israel warned them to evacuate ahead of an expected ground invasion in retaliation for Hamas’s October 7 attack.
Over 1,400 people have been killed since the attack in Israel, which has responded with unrelenting strikes on the densely-populated enclave, claiming the lives of at least 2,670 people so far.
The United Nations has warned of potentially “devastating” humanitarian consequences from the Israeli evacuation order.
Qarnaoui chose not to risk taking the road back to his family’s home further north in the Boureij refugee camp with Israeli strikes continuing in the area and no taxis in site.
He managed to find a good Samaritan to take him in for the night and he slept on the floor.
“It was freezing cold. Then one of the residents brought me back to the terminal this morning,” he said.
“Half an hour later, we learned that their house had just been bombed.”
Despite living in Switzerland for decades, this is not the first time Qarnaoui has been surprised by war while visiting Gaza, which has seen five wars with Israel in 15 years.
“I saw the war in 2008, but it was different. This time, it’s a genocidal war,” he said, as Israel’s ground invasion looms with tens of thousands of troops and military vehicles massed at the border of the territory.
An estimated one million people have been displaced in the first seven days of the conflict in Gaza, the United Nations agency supporting Palestinian refugees said Sunday.
“If I can’t get out, I’ll go back to the family home, and we’ll all live together or die together,” said Qarnaoui.
– ‘Passport worth nothing’ –
Said al-Hassi was also waiting by the crossing in the hopes of returning to Sweden, which he left three weeks ago to visit family in Rafah.
“Our house is east of the city. We all went west” to the coast to move further away from Israel’s artillery strikes, he told AFP.
He said he usually feels protected by his Swedish citizenship, but in Gaza even “a passport is worth nothing against bombings and war”.
“If they drop an atomic bomb on us, at least, we’ll die faster than suffocating under the rubble,” Hassi added.
Nearby, Alia Saqallah and other family members have not eaten since yesterday, as food supplies dwindle in the besieged territory.
“We had a few pieces of bread. We left them for the children,” she said.
Beside her, three small suitcases now contain all that remains of their former life in Gaza City’s Rimal neighbourhood, now in ruins.