British citizens forced to return to Gaza from safety in Egypt

Four Britons or family members of British citizens say they fear for their lives after being sent back into Gaza from Egypt because the UK government reportedly failed to put their names on lists of those allowed through.

The four civilians include a mother whose young children have already fled without her, and whose husband said having her sent back felt like “a form of collective punishment”.

The group spent two nights anxiously waiting on the far side of the Rafah border crossing, not knowing whether they would be able to stay.

Other members of their families were on the list and allowed by Egyptian authorities to remain there, so the families have been split up.

They said they saw American and Egyptians in the same position and allowed to leave when their governments approved their names.

Israel and Egypt draw up lists of civilians allowed to escape the bombardment, from names approved by national governments. Hundreds of foreign nationals have fled to safety so far from the enclave, including around 100 Britons.

The UK government says it has provided a full list of names of British nationals and their eligible dependants in Gaza to the Israeli and Egyptian authorities, prioritising by medical vulnerability.

Those involved crossed into Egypt on Monday evening with their families, but were stopped at the Egyptian side because their names were not “on the list”.

The four, each from a different family, were eventually sent back to Gaza on Wednesday morning.

They attacked the UK government for the “lack of help”. But the government says it is in contact with – and assisting – the families of several individuals in Israel and Gaza.

Palestinian-American Farah Salouha before boarding a bus to Egypt (REUTERS)
Palestinian-American Farah Salouha before boarding a bus to Egypt (REUTERS)

Dr Nadia Ghalayini, a gynaecologist whose husband is a British citizen, was one of those turned back. Her husband, Dr Baha Ghalayini, whose children live Manchester and who is now with their sons in the Egyptian capital Cairo, said: “We are beyond dejected: my wife has been sent back into the war zone that is Gaza.

“We are so frustrated with Foreign Office officials who from the start could have put my wife’s name on the list but instead they chose to split our family.

“Now they just say ‘we are doing everything we can to help British Palestinians’ when we don’t see anything from them. They could have intervened yesterday and my children could now be with their mother.

“Instead she spent a second night on the border away from her family. It feels like another form of collective punishment.”

The four told UK-based organisation Save Gazan Families that during the three-day wait in Egypt, embassies of other countries provided their citizens with hot meals – but the British embassy provided only cheese sandwiches.

Dr Ahmad Sabra, an NHS consultant cardiologist who works in Leeds and Wakefield but lives with his family in Swansea, said: “The Egyptian authorities said that if our government could make a high-level call they would be able to help us.

“We waited for hours but were informed the call was never made.

“Now we are back in Gaza and worry we will have a target on our back. Israel targeted families leaving the border on the Gazan side yesterday, as well as an aid convoy. Nowhere is safe.”

Dr Sabra and one of the others have British passports; another one has a British visa.

The health ministry in the Hamas-controlled enclave says at least 10,000 people in Gaza have since been killed in attacks by Israel.

Hamas killed around 1,400 Israelis and took an estimated 240 more people hostage.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has warned Gaza is becoming a “graveyard for children”.

Last week a British teacher was turned away at the Rafah border crossing amid chaotic scenes with desperate families begging border guards to be allowed to cross to safety.

Neil Henrick from Save Gazan Families said: “There is a worsening humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza but instead of recognising the gravity of the situation, the FCDO [Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office] appears to be asleep at the wheel.

“The UK needs to do everything necessary to get these families out immediately, trickling names through on an irregular basis is just adding to the awful stress and dejection these families are feeling.

“They are British citizens, that should come with some form of protection and support from their government.”

A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “We’re working round the clock to ensure all British nationals in Gaza who want to leave are able to. This involves submitting all details of British nationals and eligible dependants to the Israeli and Egyptian authorities.

“The authorities then review all cases and give permissions to cross.

“We remain in regular contact with British nationals in Gaza to provide them with the latest information, and UK teams are forward deployed to the border to receive anyone leaving”.