Sinai Limbo: Why Some Palestinians Are Desperate To Go Back Inside Besieged Gaza
Dozens of families from Gaza are now stranded in Egypt's North Sinai, after they tried to cross into Egypt through the Rafah crossing. They tell Mada Masr about watching Israel's brutal siege for afar — and their wish to go back home, in spite of the risks.
NORTH SINAI — Ahmed Mukhaimer arrived at the Rafah border crossing last Tuesday, returning from Turkey to be with his wife and children in Gaza in the early days of what has turned into a 10-day war that does not look to be ending any time soon.
But the family reunion was roadblocked by unprecedented events at the crossing, as Israel bombed the crossing three times in 24 hours, with airstrikes hitting the Palestinian side of the crossing on the evening of October 9 and twice more the following day.
After the airstrikes, the crossing was closed indefinitely, and Mukhaimer had to seek temporary shelter. So, he made his way to Sheikh Zuwayed, about 15 km from the border with Gaza, in the hopes that the crossing would open and he would be able to return to Gaza.
When he arrived in Sheikh Zuwayed, he found a number of other families from Gaza stranded in the city. They make up dozens of families stranded in North Sinai.
By the end of the week, the situation was escalating. Israel dropped leaflets and used its social media arms to call on nearly half of Palestinians in Gaza and aid workers to move from the northern half of the strip to the southern in a span of 24 hours. To decide what to do, Mukhaimer called his wife. They agreed in the call that they would not leave the family home, even if it cost them their lives, because death would be easier than what they would face if displaced.
Helplessly watching home burn
Mukhaimer is one of the dozens of Palestinians from Gaza who over the past week have had to make a temporary home in the Sinai cities of Arish and Sheikh Zuwayed, from which they’ve watched the devastation play out on the side of the siege wall, thinking of their loved ones, all the while dealing with unstable conditions in their wait.
At dawn on Sunday, Mukhaimer received the news that his family home had been bombed.
On October 7, the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, launched an unprecedented military operation, breaking through the siege wall on Gaza into Israeli-held territory, taking control of several settlements, killing over 1,400 people and taking nearly dozens of people as prisoners.
In retaliation, Israel launched the worst bombing campaign on Gaza, one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world, in recent decades. So far, a confirmed 2,778 people have been killed in the bombing, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
At dawn on Sunday, Mukhaimer received the news that his family home had been bombed by Israeli aircraft, and his wife and children were among the thousands killed by Israel, while he was stranded on the other side of the border far away from them.
Market in Sheikh Zuwayed, North Sinai
Cut off from families
There are currently around 85 stranded Palestinians in Sheikh Zuwayed. One of them is Sameh*, who told Mada Masr that they are “Palestinians who arrive at Cairo International Airport with the aim of entering Gaza, so they are not given an Egyptian entry visa at the airport.”
Under normal circumstances, Sameh explains, Egypt's security confiscates the passports of Palestinians earmarked for Gaza and escorts them onto buses that will take them to Gaza. A security detail accompanies the bus until it arrives at the Palestinian side.
But the closure of the crossing meant there was a deviation from the normal routine.
According to Sameh, the buses were diverted to Sheikh Zuwayed, where, upon arrival, they were hosted by local families who were under strict security instructions to not allow any Palestinian to leave the neighborhood where they reside.
Sameh appreciates what the host families have done, providing food and drink for them. Although, he said, some of them did speak to him inappropriately in order to prevent him from leaving the neighborhood.
Sameh is aware of the sensitivity of his and the other Palestinians’ situation given that they don’t have an entry visa and Egyptian security officials are keeping hold of their passports, but he reiterated that all they want is to go to the nearby pharmacy in the area to buy medicine. They also need to buy an Egyptian SIM card so that they can call their families in Gaza, as most of them have been unable to communicate with their families after the credit on their international SIMs ran out.
At the mercy of the Rafah crossing
In a similar situation, dozens of Palestinians are stranded in the city of Arish. Their security situation is different as they have Egyptian entry visas, having entered through the Rafah border crossing days before the war broke out. But they face the same situation as their compatriots in Sheikh Zuwayed in that they are running out of money and have lost communication with their families in Gaza.
Three days before the war, Hagga Samiha* and her husband entered Egypt for a medical procedure in Cairo. Upon hearing about the Hamas-led operation and the Israeli retaliation, they cut their trip short and returned to Rafah in the evening on Saturday. They then made daily attempts to cross the border, traveling from Arish, where they were staying, to Rafah. They were denied each time.
We cannot leave them.
This continued until Tuesday, October 10, when the crossing closed, with its opening becoming a matter of intense negotiations between the United States, Egypt and Israel over the exit of foreign nationals and the entry of aid.
These daily journeys and the hotel costs, however, nearly drained all of Hagga Samiha’s money. “I came to Egypt for my medical treatment with two changes of clothes: one to wash, and one to wear,” she says.
Hagga Samiha has lost contact with her family in Gaza. The last time they spoke, she says, she learned that they had left the family home after the house next door was bombed, killing everyone inside.
No choice but to return
The number of stranded Palestinians put pressure on Arish’s limited hotels. Once they were filled, Khaled* decided to host another family in his room after they had spent two nights in a cafe in Sheikh Zuwayed as there was no shelter for them.
Khaled came to Egypt in order for his daughter to undergo surgery in Cairo. His daughter had undergone the preparatory examinations, but they postponed the surgery to return to the crossing after Khaled learned of the conflict breaking out. Khaled and his daughter ended up with the rest of the Palestinians from Gaza who were stuck in Arish, waiting for the opportunity to get to the other side of the border.
Khaled says that some of the stranded families were forced to leave the hotel after they were unable to pay for their rooms, a fate that nearly befell him, but he decided to sell his phone in order to pay for the room, foregoing the ability to check on family members in Gaza.
“Some of us have lost contact with our families and are no longer receiving updates,” says Sameh, noting that most have received the news that their homes have been bombed or at least one of their family members has been killed. He explains that they tried to return to Gaza after the war broke out “because we have families that are getting bombed. They’re hungry and at risk of dying — we cannot leave them.”
Sameh hopes that Egypt will facilitate their entry into Gaza if an agreement is reached regarding the passage of humanitarian aid into the strip in exchange for the exit of those with dual citizenship.
As for Hagga Samiha, who is over 70 years old, she describes the death and destruction that Gaza is currently witnessing due to the bombing as worse than the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Despite that, she says: “We want to enter Gaza through any corridor that opens, even if we have to live in a tent. We want to die as martyrs with our children.”
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