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Foreign nationals leaving the Gaza Strip on Thursday have told of their relief at being able to escape the intense Israeli bombardment that has flattened large swathes of the enclave and killed more than 9,000 Palestinians since October 7.
The Rafah border crossing, which Gaza shares with Egypt, opened on Wednesday to receive the first group of foreign nationals, which totalled 596, according to the enclave’s border authority.
Abdullah Dahalan, one of about 20 Australian citizens cleared to leave in the first group, described the horrors inside Gaza.
“It’s a disaster, an atrocity. A holocaust if you want to call it that. It’s even worse than a holocaust.”
Many families are grieving over leaving members behind in Gaza who don’t have a foreign passport to allow them to evacuate.
“I am not used to this kind of life,” Mr Dahalan added, “You go to sleep and you don’t know if you’re going to wake up or not. It’s just been an awful situation, I just can’t describe it.”
After 345 foreign nationals crossed into Egypt on Wednesday, the Gaza border authority announced that the Rafah crossing would remain open on Thursday to allow the rest of the group to leave.
Buses were organised by the Egyptian foreign ministry to ferry foreign nationals to Cairo to board flights back to their home countries, the ministry said in a statement.
Many of the foreign nationals had been in Gaza visiting family members when the war began and became trapped by the ensuing blockade.
“I have been living in the US for the past 32 years,” Ali Alkoka, 88, one of 400 Palestinian-Americans cleared for evacuation, told The National.
“I was visiting my family when the strikes started. The strikes came from the sky, from the sea and from land. Thirty-six of my family members died, Some were crushed in the building collapses and some were killed in the street.”
“I am so glad to leave,” Mr Dahalan said. Having spent the past 57 years in Australia he said he'd previously “never heard a shot fired”.
Groups of foreign nationals continued to gather on the Palestinian side of the city of Rafah on the Egypt-Gaza border in the hope that the crossing would open and allow them out.
Mona, a Palestinian-Australian woman had been waiting there for 10 days. She was finally cleared for evacuation on Thursday.
She told The National how she had to hastily leave all her belongings in a Gaza hotel, where she had been staying while visiting her family, after Israeli air strikes.
“Around the start of the strikes, I moved from Gaza to Khan Younis. I stayed 15 days without my luggage, without my clothes, nothing.
“They bombed very close to the hotel and I left everything in there. I cannot describe it, these things you just can’t describe. You are shaking all over,” Mona said.
Egypt also opened the Rafah border crossing on Wednesday to receive a limited number of Palestinians wounded in the Israeli air strikes.
Seventy-six Palestinians were cleared for evacuation from Gaza on Wednesday, some of whom were admitted to hospitals in Egypt’s North Sinai for treatment of their injuries while others accompanied them.
Another 60 Palestinians, both the wounded and their companions, are expected to enter Egypt on Thursday, according to an Egyptian health ministry official in the city of Al Arish.
In addition to the 20 Australian citizens, the foreign nationals leaving Gaza included US, British, French, Hungarian, Korean and Jordanian nationals.
The UN described conditions inside the enclave as a “humanitarian crisis” which has continued to worsen over the past three weeks as Israel’s siege and bombings intensified.
Gazans have suffered severe shortages of food, water, medical supplies and other essentials following an Israeli blockade on aid entering the enclave.
The UN has at best a week’s supply left of wheat flour to feed Gaza’s population, and only three to four days’ worth of fuel, a spokeswoman for the agency has told The National.
Unrwa spokeswoman, Juliette Touma said water, food and fuel have been used as “weapons of war” in the conflict.
“We couldn't even find bread. And when we did find bread and lined up to buy it, the Israelis would launch strikes on the lines. Even the lines for water were hit,” Mr Alkoka recounted.
Though Israel lifted the blockade on October 21, its checkpoints only allowed a small amount of aid to enter every day until Saturday when international pressure made it loosen restrictions to allow more through. Since then, 272 aid lorries have so far been allowed in.
Thousands of tonnes of aid have continued to arrive in the Egyptian city of Al Arish, about 45km west of Rafah, waiting for clearance to enter the enclave.
Mona described how heartbreaking it was to leave her family and loved ones behind with “no food, no water and in a very scary situation”.