About 150 Canadians remained trapped in the Gaza Strip on Saturday afternoon after the apparent failure of an international agreement to allow foreign nationals to leave the besieged Palestinian territory.
Thousands of people were massing on Saturday at the Rafah crossing from Gaza to Egypt, hoping to be allowed to leave the enclave, after earlier reports that the border crossing would be opened for five hours on Saturday afternoon. But confusion reigned when the gate did not open and Israeli authorities said the agreement was scrapped.
“The passage that was planned for today between 12:00-17:00 is cancelled,” read a message sent by the Israeli Foreign Ministry to Western embassies at midday local time on Saturday. The message was seen by The Globe and Mail.
“We wish to inform that, due to concerning information we received, we instruct everyone to go back immediately and stay from the area and wait for further updates.”
In an interview with the Globe and Mail Saturday from Jordan, Canadian foreign affairs minister Mélanie Joly said the inability to evacuate people through the Rafah border crossing illustrates the need for a full-fledged humanitarian corridor to enable safe passage out of Gaza.
“That’s why we absolutely need a humanitarian corridor where civilians can leave and aid can enter,” Ms. Joly said. She said this was part of her conversation with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen Friday. “He assured me that Canadians would be able to leave Gaza,” she said, adding she would be making calls Saturday to ensure “this is still the case.”
On Friday, federal officials in Ottawa said they were hoping that the Canadians in Gaza would be able to leave through the Rafa crossing on Saturday. But they emphasized that the plans for foreign nationals were unconfirmed.
“This is a very volatile, very dangerous situation. It is a very dangerous border crossing point,” said Alexandre Lévêque, an assistant deputy minister who oversees Middle Eastern issues at Global Affairs Canada, at the briefing on Friday. He added that there are “no hard guarantees about this.”
In a report on Saturday, The Associated Press quoted a senior Egyptian official as saying that Egypt, Israel and the United States had reached an agreement to allow foreigners in Gaza to pass through the Rafah crossing into Egypt. But the Israeli government message at midday seemed to take precedence over the Egypt report, and there was no indication that foreign nationals were entering Egypt as the five-hour period moved closer to expiring late on Saturday afternoon.
The Rafah crossing is also central to plans by humanitarian agencies that are trying to send emergency supplies into Gaza to relieve the Israeli blockade of the territory. The World Health Organization said on Saturday that it had flown 78 cubic metres of health supplies into the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, aiming to deliver them into Gaza as soon as it is allowed. The supplies included enough medicine to treat 1,200 wounded patients and 1,500 patients suffering from chronic diseases, plus basic health supplies for 300,000 people.
“We’re ready to deploy the supplies as soon as humanitarian access through the crossing is established,” said the WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in a social media post on Saturday.
After the large-scale attacks on southern Israel last Saturday by members of the Hamas militant group that controls Gaza, the Israeli authorities halted all supplies of food, fuel, water and medicine into Gaza. Humanitarian agencies have been pushing for a corridor to be created to send supplies into Gaza, but none has been established so far, leaving stocks of medicine stuck in Egypt within kilometres of the Gaza border.
“Every hour these supplies remain on the Egyptian side of the border, more girls and boys, women, and men – especially those vulnerable or disabled – will die while supplies that can save them are less than 20 kilometers away,” the WHO said on Saturday.
The southern end of the Gaza Strip was a densely packed and chaotic place even before the Israeli military declared this week that the 1.1 million people living in the north of the enclave should move south ahead of an anticipated ground attack.
The border is under Egyptian control, and while it has allowed a trickle of construction materials and other supplies to reach Hamas-ruled Gaza – around an effective Israeli blockade of the strip’s other borders – the border was only open sporadically to those seeking to leave, even in relative peacetime. Israel also controls Gaza’s airspace and waters, meaning the strip still qualifies as “occupied” under international law, even though Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers in 2005.
The Rafah crossing was destroyed in 2008 – shortly after Hamas violently seized power in Gaza – briefly allowing Gazans to cross into Egypt at will. The iron fence that marks the border was soon restored, and Egypt later reached a deal with the Palestinian factions that saw officers from president Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority – a Hamas rival that is recognized by the international community as the legal government of both the West Bank and Gaza – deployed at the southern end of the strip to screen prospective travellers.