Hundreds of foreign nationals remain stranded in Gaza as Israel intensifies airstrikes

More than two weeks of intense negotiations to evacuate foreign nationals out of Gaza have yielded few signs of progress, leaving hundreds of desperate civilians stranded inside the war-torn strip of land as Israeli ground operations expanded amid a barrage of airstrikes on Friday.

Multiple sources involved in the diplomatic talks tell CNN that the effort to open a key border crossing in southern Gaza remains stymied by Hamas’ control of the enclave, Israel’s blockade and bombing, as well as Egyptian security concerns.

Now that the Israeli defense forces have announced an expansion of their ground operations, the situation for civilians and foreign nationals who remain trapped in Gaza has become even more dire. Aid officials and other individuals on the ground had expressed fears even before the expansion of operations that nowhere in Gaza was safe, and despite US officials saying they were working with Israel to establish civilian safe zones, such areas have not been fully stood up.

People who have family in Gaza told CNN on Friday they have not been able to make contact with them after communications went down in the strip amid the barrage of strikes.

“It’s like sitting in the dark not knowing what is going to hit you, I can’t reach them on any medium of communication at this point, I can’t even know if they are okay or not, I don’t know if they are safe or not,” Said Alhayek, 42, from Las Vegas said.

CNN was unable to reach several contacts with Gaza numbers on Friday.

Negotiators have been furiously working to find a solution to appease Egypt’s concerns about refugees entering the country through the Rafah crossing in southwestern Gaza, the border between Egypt and the Sinai. Complicating things are Israeli and American claims that Hamas has blocked the way out, as well as the inherent difficulties that come with processing thousands of people who claim to be foreign nationals.

The US had also been rushing to negotiate the release of hostages held by Hamas ahead of the incursion, talks that the US government insisted will continue amid Friday’s intensified airstrikes.

The Biden administration said Thursday it was hopeful that a deal will be reached in the coming days to allow US citizens to evacuate Gaza through Egypt, though the State Department had previously issued an alert saying the crossing into Egypt would open but it never did.

“It’s like unlocking a puzzle where you unlock a layer that can unlock one little piece of it. And then another obstacle pops up and you’ve got to go figure out with all the parties how to unlock that piece,” a State Department spokesperson explained. “We’re making progress and I think we’ll get there but it’s difficult.”

US Ambassador David Satterfield, tapped in recent weeks as the Special Envoy for Middle East Humanitarian Issues, has been leading negotiations on the ground on behalf of the US. He arrived in Cairo Friday after days of meetings in Israel.

Satterfield’s arrival in Cairo follows a meeting earlier in the month between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who recently crisscrossed the region, in which Sisi was seen to lecture the American diplomat.

Sisi and President Joe Biden have also had calls.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at al-Ittihadiya presidential palace in Cairo, on January 30, 2023. - Blinken arrived on January 29 in Egypt at the start of a Middle East trip on which he will look to notch down Israeli-Palestinian tensions after an eruption of violence. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / POOL / AFP) (Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) - Khaled Desouki/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

“We’re dealing with Israel, Egypt, and Hamas, and we’re not talking directly to Hamas, Egypt can send messages to Hamas, Qatar can send messages to Hamas. But you can imagine how difficult every little thing is, every bit of this is complicated,” the State Department spokesperson added.

‘No man’s land’

After the Hamas attacks on October 7th in Israel that killed over 1400 people, the US government scrambled to fly citizens home, chartering planes from foreign airlines after American carriers halted their flights. There are an estimated 500-600 Americans in Gaza, though it’s unclear how many are trying to leave.

The State Department has long warned Americans not to travel to Gaza.

Hamas’ control of the strip – and that side of the Rafah crossing – has seriously complicated efforts to evacuate civilians.

On Thursday, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller described the current state of the Rafah border crossing, explaining that Hamas’ sporadic presence has made the situation “extremely difficult,” but that Egyptians are ready to take in foreign nationals who make it to their side of the border.

“At times, Hamas has had no one there manning the border station,” Miller said of the crossing. “At other times we have seen Hamas militants actively there with guns preventing people from approaching the crossing.”

“So there is a problem getting people through the Gaza side into the no man’s land, where they can ultimately get across to the Egyptian side to be processed to enter into Egypt,” he explained.

‘He’s terrified”

Two Palestinian-Americans who have been languishing waiting near Rafah for over two weeks tell CNN that they have seen no effort by Hamas to keep them from leaving, contrary to Israeli and American claims.

But Hamas ultimately has control and the gates on the Gazan side of Rafah have remained closed, preventing people from flowing into the buffer zone before the Egyptian side of the crossing where the US says Egypt is ready to process evacuees.

“We haven’t seen anyone from Hamas at the crossing the three times we were there,” Abood Okal, a 36-year old from Boston said on Thursday. “The only people we saw is 3 or 4 guards in civilian clothing [with] no weapons that are always there for general security.”

“No one prevented us from going through because no one was there from the employees that are usually there to process passports for departure,” Okal added.

Israeli forces have bombarded the length of the Gaza strip in the weeks since the October 7 Hamas attack. A CNN journalist filmed strikes early Friday in Khan Younis, a few miles from the Rafah crossing.

Lena Beseiso, a 57-year-old from Salt Lake City, said on Thursday she and her 10-year-old grandson were at the border last week waiting to be able to cross when there was a bombing.

“He’s terrified. We’re terrified and my children, family and friends back home in Utah and the States are also terrified, frustrated and want us home safely in one piece,” she told CNN in a text message.

Security concerns

At the outset of negotiations, Sisi insisted that humanitarian aid makes its way into Gaza before Egypt considers letting civilians depart. Now the first tranches of the critical assistance have been allowed into Gaza after intensive negotiations and an agreement announced by Biden, though US and international officials have said that the amount is not sufficient and must be sustained.

Still, Egypt has made clear it does not want to take in a flood of refugees. Sisi’s government is particularly sensitive to any potential attempts to resettle Palestinians in the Sinai.

Another complicating factor is the fact that many foreign nationals seeking to leave Gaza may not have documentation like passports to prove their identities and nationality. Egypt also has been loath to allow consular officials to stay in the Sinai Peninsula where Egypt has for years battled extremist unrest.

Miller, the State Department spokesperson, told CNN that Egypt is ready to accept people if they can get to the Egyptian side for processing, and there are US consular officials in Egypt who “will be able to facilitate the onward journeys of American citizens when we are able to get them through the Rafah crossing.”

According to one source, Egyptian officials have asked US officials for lists of American citizens and relatives who are seeking to leave.

“There’s wrangling going on about how you’d administer a consular exit,” a western diplomat familiar with the discussions told CNN, pointing to the lack of international officials or an authority inside Gaza to make sure that those who would be allowed to enter Egypt or Israel can separate those citizens from Palestinians without foreign passports.

Palestinian women make traditional unleavened bread on an open fire at a shelter for displaced families mainly from the north of the Gaza Strip, at a UN-run school in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on October 27, 2023, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP) (Photo by SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images) - Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images

“You’ve got no administering force [inside Gaza],” the diplomat continued. “You’d need no fire assurances from Israel. Are you sending foreigners into Gaza to process people?”

‘False hope’

Israel claims they will do what they can to facilitate the departure of foreigners, but only through the Rafah crossing into Egypt. Mark Regev, an advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told CNN the crossings from Gaza into Israel have been destroyed and Hamas has “decided to play games with these American [citizens].”

Even as the State Department expresses hope that the crossing could open to citizens in the coming days, the Americans in Gaza who spoke with CNN decried the way that the situation has been handled thus far. Many made their way to the Rafah crossing after receiving messages from the State Department indicating that it “may” open.

“I can’t go another day with this torture and false hope,” Beseiso, the American from Utah, told CNN last week.

Miller said Thursday that the State Department sent a message on Wednesday to American citizens who had registered with the department “telling them that we were continuing to work on a solution, and that we would provide them information as soon as we had an update.”

“We are going to stay in touch with them and let them know we’re working on it. And as soon as we have an update about them actually been able to make it through the crossing into Egypt, we will send them that update,” he said.

CNN’s Michael Conte contributed to this report.

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