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Americans leaving Gaza report chaos, relief — and worry for people staying behind

Palestinians with dual nationality register to cross to Egypt on the Gaza Strip side of the border crossing in Rafah on Thursday.
Hatem Ali
Palestinians with dual nationality register to cross to Egypt on the Gaza Strip side of the border crossing in Rafah on Thursday.

Updated November 2, 2023 at 3:10 PM ET

RAFAH, the Gaza Strip — U.S. citizens say they're both happy and exhausted to have finally left the embattled Gaza Strip after nearly a month of bombardments and blockades — but they're also fearful for family and loved ones left behind.

President Biden said "74 American folks" were able to leave Gaza Thursday.

Dr. Barbara Zind, a pediatrician from Grand Junction, Colo., went to Gaza on a humanitarian mission, but she spent nearly a month trapped by the war. She described a chaotic process when she navigated the Rafah crossing.

"There was chaos at the first door" where people were told to wait to hear their name called on Wednesday, she said. "And then you go into this other waiting room, and there was just chaos."

Zind said it took about 12 hours for her and other aid workers to leave Gaza and cross into Egypt. She is expectd to fly home Thursday night.

Civilians leaving Gaza display their documents as dual national Palestinians and foreigners prepare to cross the Rafah border point with Egypt, in the southern Gaza Strip, on  Thursday.
Said Khatib / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Civilians leaving Gaza display their documents as dual national Palestinians and foreigners prepare to cross the Rafah border point with Egypt, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Thursday.

A Massachusetts family also made it out of Gaza on Thursday. Abood Okal, his wife, Wafaa Abuzayda, and their 1-year-old child had been turned away repeatedly as they tried to leave, and they had trouble finding clean drinking water.

"They're very happy" to make it out, Boston attorney Sammy Nabulsi said on the family's behalf. "They're exhausted. They're drained, they're emotionally and physically drained. They're also worried. They still have family behind in Gaza."

Some 400 Americans and their relatives set to exit

Hundreds of Americans and other foreign passport holders are poised to leave the Gaza Strip this week — the first major departure of civilians from the territory since the war between Israel and the militant group Hamas began early this month.

A new list of passport holders approved to depart — all of them foreign citizens or dual national Palestinians — was issued by the border authority overnight. It included around 400 Americans.

The State Department has been in contact with about 400 Americans who have expressed a desire to leave, department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Wednesday. With their family members, the total number is around 1,000, Miller said.

Haneen Okal, a 31-year-old mother of three, is on the list of American passport holders approved to leave Gaza.

"We can't describe our feelings of getting evacuated," she told NPR as she waited at the Rafah border crossing on Thursday. "But we're still sad because what's happening in Gaza. The war is still there."

"I left my two sisters, my two brothers, and my mom and my dad," Okal said. "My mom and my dad do have American citizenship, but they don't want to leave my other family members, so hopefully we can get them all out of there as soon as we can."

"It's a disaster. There is lack of food, electricity, power, no internet in there, bombing is all over. It's not safe at all," she said. "I don't know when this situation will end, but it's really a disaster in there."

Citizens with foreign passports wait to travel through the Rafah crossing on Thursday. At least 300 civilians, all of them foreign citizens or dual nationals, departed Gaza Wednesday.
Ahmad Hasaballah / Getty Images
Getty Images
Citizens with foreign passports wait to travel through the Rafah crossing on Thursday. At least 300 civilians, all of them foreign citizens or dual nationals, departed Gaza Wednesday.

At least 300 foreign citizens departed Gaza on Wednesday, according to the Gaza border authority, which is operated by Hamas. In addition, dozens of critically wounded Palestinians were transported by ambulance to hospitals in Egypt for treatment.

Israel's airstrikes are ongoing, and its ground campaign inside Gaza has intensified. Israeli troops have entered from Gaza's north and east, and the Israeli military have reported multiple skirmishes between its soldiers and Hamas fighters.

Showdown over funding plan for Israel and Ukraine

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill mostly along party lines that would provide $14.3 billion for Israel. But the bill doesn't include funding for Ukraine, which Democrats supported, and contains provisions that would slash a funding increase for the Internal Revenue Service to boost enforcement to catch tax cheats.

Democrats, who have the majority in the Senate, say the proposal pushed by new House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., doesn't have a chance on that side of the Capitol.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the bill a "stunningly unserious proposal."

President Biden has said he'll veto any legislation that doesn't include funding for Ukraine.

The vote was 226-196, with 12 Democrats voting for it and two Republicans voting against it.

Biden joins those calling for a cease-fire

In Gaza, access to water, food, fuel and medical care remain urgent humanitarian issues, the United Nations reports.

More than 9,000 Palestinians have been killed since Oct. 7, according to Palestinian health officials. Some 240 hostages remain held by Hamas, who say dozens of them have died in Israeli airstrikes.

Calls for a cease-fire have grown from human rights groups, international leaders and left-leaning members of the Democratic Party. The White House, once steadfast in its support of Israel's opposition to a cease-fire, has shown support in recent days for what officials have called a "humanitarian pause."

On Wednesday, Biden himself called for one.

"I think we need a pause," he said, speaking to a crowd of supporters after giving a campaign speech. A brief cessation of military operations could "give time to get the prisoners out," he added, which the White House later clarified to refer to hostages held by Hamas.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on Thursday became the first senator to call for a cease-fire, but he said that should come only after all the hostages being held by Hamas are released.

Asked on CNN if he thought it was time for a cease-fire, Durbin replied "I think it is." But he added: "At least in the context of both sides agreeing. For example, the release of those who have been kidnapped should be part of this — immediate release. That should be the beginning of it."

Later Thursday, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said Israel should reconsider its approach to rooting out Hamas and "shift to a more deliberate and proportionate counterterrorism campaign."

"This does not mean that Israel should stop fighting Hamas, but it must take concrete steps to end the current widespread harm to innocent people and children inside Gaza," Murphy said in a statement.

"As we have learned from America's own counterterrorism campaigns, disproportionately large numbers of civilian casualties come with a moral cost, but also a strategic cost, as terrorist groups feed off of the grievances caused by civilian harm," Murphy said.

At least 17 Israeli soldiers have died since Israel's ground troops entered Gaza in what officials have called the "second phase" of the war. In total, 332 Israeli soldiers have died in the conflict so far, most of them on Oct. 7.

The health ministry in Gaza reports that 195 died in the Israeli strike on Jabalia refugee camp earlier this week, with 120 people still missing under the rubble.

Blinken headed back to the region

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken left Washington on Thursday afternoon to travel to Israel and Jordan to push for the protection of civilians in Gaza and to work with leaders in the region to keep the conflict from spreading.

Confrontations across northern Israel's border with Lebanon have escalated in recent days between the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Hamas militants and the Israeli military.

Hezbollah said Thursday it attacked an Israeli army post with two suicide drones, and Hamas meanwhile said it fired 12 rockets from Lebanon toward the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona, which has been evacuated.

The Israeli military said it hit back with airstrikes and artillery fire aimed at Hezbollah's command and control centers, rocket launch posts and other infrastructure in southern Lebanon.

Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is scheduled to make his first public remarks since the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel.

Blinken will also seek to increase the amount of aid getting in to Gaza and the number of U.S. citizens and other foreign nationals getting out.

Blinken said one of his priorities will be discussions on setting the conditions for a sustainable peace in the region.

"We're focused on the day of; we also need to be focused on the day after," he told reporters before departing.

NPR's Becky Sullivan reported from Tel Aviv, Israel. NPR's Anas Baba reported from Rafah. NPR's Bill Chappell reported from Washington, D.C. Colorado Public Radio's Stina Sieg contributed reporting from Grand Junction, Colo. WBUR's Deborah Becker contributed reporting from Boston. contributed to this story

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
Anas Baba
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.