Foreign nationals and injured Palestinians allowed to flee Gaza for first time since Israel-Hamas war began

Injured Palestinians and hundreds of foreign nationals have started crossing from Gaza into Egypt, officials and Egyptian media said, in the first sanctioned exodus from the besieged enclave in weeks.

Eighty-one severely injured Palestinians were expected to enter Egypt on Wednesday, of which dozens have already arrived and are undergoing treatment in several hospitals across Egypt, according to a CNN journalist on the ground. A spokesperson for Egypt’s Ministry of Health told CNN, “they are arriving one by one.”

Over 360 foreign passport holders have also left Gaza through the Rafah border crossing, an Egyptian government official told CNN, speaking on condition of anonymity, because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

The official said dozens are now on their way to Cairo, where some will catch flights back to their home countries. Among them are nationals of Austria, the United Kingdom, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Italy and Japan, the official said.

At least two Americans have also entered Egypt, according to family members and aid groups. Several French citizens have also left Gaza, government officials said.

All 22 international staff members of Doctors Without Borders have also left Gaza, with a new medical team ready to enter the Palestinian enclave “as the situation allows,” the charity said Wednesday.

The injured Palestinians and dual nationals are the first non-hostages allowed out of the enclave since Israel’s latest war with Hamas began three weeks ago, representing a significant breakthrough following weeks of Israeli airstrikes across the densely populated strip that have killed thousands and sparked a humanitarian crisis.

According to the Egyptian official, 491 foreign nationals were registered to arrive in Egypt today, but the remaining 130 either didn’t make it to the border crossing or refused to cross without their families, whose names were not registered on the list.

People enter the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip in preparation for crossing into Egypt on November 1, 2023. - Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images
People enter the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip in preparation for crossing into Egypt on November 1, 2023. - Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

Their exit follows a deal brokered by Qatar between Israel, Hamas and Egypt, in coordination with the US, that would allow for the release of foreign nationals and critically injured civilians from Gaza, according to sources familiar with the talks.

The agreement is separate from any hostage negotiations, the source added.

US President Joe Biden said the opening of Rafah came after “intense and urgent American diplomacy with our partners in the region,” and as many as 1,000 more foreign nationals could depart soon.

Ramona Okumura, a 71-year-old US citizen, crossed the border from Gaza into Egypt early this morning, her nephew, Nicholas Pang, said. Okumura, a Seattle resident, is a prosthetics expert who was making prosthetics for Gazan children on October 7 and had been staying in a UN compound.

“Across Palestine border on shuttle to Egyptian border,” she texted her brother at 4.a.m. local time.

The Palestine Children’s Relief Fund told CNN that Dr Barbara Zind, a pediatrician from Grand Junction, Colorado is also now in Egypt.

Some Palestinian-Americans stuck in Gaza had received notification from the US Department of State that “departures from Gaza may begin this week,” and at least three earlier confirmed to CNN that they had been advised to monitor their email for specific instructions before proceeding to the Rafah crossing.

Eventually, US officials believe more than 5,000 foreign nationals could ultimately be allowed to leave Gaza for Egypt as part of the deal announced Wednesday, with one senior US official saying the total could be around 7,000 people. But the official stressed that that number is far from exact, and officials have been emphasizing how fluid the situation on the ground is.

Approximately 400 American citizens plus their family members – about 1,000 people total – had been stuck in Gaza and are seeking to leave, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday.

Ambulances and diplomats await

Footage from the scene Wednesday showed a throng of ambulances at the Gaza side of the crossing, while images showed families waiting at the border with suitcases.

A number of officials from foreign consulates were also standing by on the Egyptian side of the crossing, an Egyptian border official told CNN at the crossing.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said Wednesday that “UK teams are ready to assist British nationals as soon as they are able to leave.”

A field hospital being built for injured Palestinians at the closest border gate, Sheikh Zuweid residential area in Rafah, Egypt on October 31, 2023. - Stringer/Anadolu/Getty Images
A field hospital being built for injured Palestinians at the closest border gate, Sheikh Zuweid residential area in Rafah, Egypt on October 31, 2023. - Stringer/Anadolu/Getty Images

On Wednesday morning, some 80 Egyptian ambulances entered Gaza’s Rafah border crossing to receive the injured Palestinian patients, an Egyptian border official told CNN at the crossing.

The patients were undergoing treatment in hospitals across Gaza, many of them needing surgical intervention that is not currently available there, the director of Al Shifa Hospital, Dr Mohammed Abu Silmiyeh, told CNN.

Forty-five injured Palestinians, who entered Egypt through the Rafah border crossing on Wednesday morning, are currently getting treatment in hospitals across Egypt, an Egyptian government official told CNN.

More than two million people, half of them children, have been stranded inside the war-torn strip since Hamas’ deadly October 7 terror attack prompted Israel to close its borders with Gaza and launch an aerial campaign targeting the militant group that controls the enclave.

Israel’s bombardment of the densely inhabited strip has killed at least 8,700 people, according to figures released by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah, drawn from sources in the Hamas-controlled enclave. Women, children and the elderly make up more than 70% of those killed, the ministry said on Monday.

The head of the United Nations’ Palestinian refugee agency meanwhile crossed into Gaza to meet with staff; on his return to Egypt he described the scale of tragedy as “unprecedented.”

Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), called the trip “one of the saddest days in my humanitarian work” as he described “unsanitary living conditions” and “water, food, medicine and fuel are running out” in Gaza.

“Everyone was just asking for water and food. Instead of being at school, learning, children were asking for a sip of water and a piece of bread. It was heart wrenching. Above all, people were asking for a ceasefire. They want this tragedy to end,” he said in the statement.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) expanded its ground operations in Gaza on Friday, making the situation for Palestinian civilians and foreign nationals who remain trapped in Gaza even more dangerous amid a marked increase in bombardments and fighting.

Israeli troops are also among the war’s toll. On Wednesday, the IDF announced the death of another soldier, bringing the total number of Israeli soldiers to have died since the start of the ground incursion to 16. Of that figure, 15 were killed inside Gaza.

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog urged Israelis to remain united, saying Hamas aims to “incite hatred” during an address delivered Wednesday evening. “The enemy seeks to incite hatred within us - between Jewish citizens and Arab citizens.. We must eradicate any incarnation of enmity, racism, and violence towards different groups within us,” Herzog said.

Herzog also underscored the important role played by Arab citizens in Israel. “Remember that there are dozens of Arab citizens here who paid with their lives in the terrible massacre, and as part of the security forces and the IDF. Remember the mutual responsibility as displayed by the overwhelming majority of the Arab society in Israel,” Herzog said.

Negotiators have been working for weeks to evacuate foreign nationals out of Gaza, and allay Egypt’s concerns about refugees entering the country through the Rafah crossing in southwestern Gaza.

Located in Egypt’s north Sinai, the Rafah crossing is the sole border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. It falls along an 8-mile (12.8-kilometer) fence that separates Gaza from the Sinai desert.

With both border crossings between Gaza and Israel shut since Hamas’ deadly October 7 terror attacks, Rafah is the territory’s only entry point to the outside world.

But the crossing has been closed except for a few occasions when it opened to allow a limited amount of aid into Gaza.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect Okumura’s role.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated.

CNN’s Alex Hardie, Ibrahim Dahman, Melissa Bell, Chris Liakos, Hamdi Alkhshali, MJ Lee, Jennifer Hansler, Hope Howard, Yahya Abou-Ghazala, Stephanie Becker, Daniel Medina and Radina Gigova contributed reporting.

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