Israeli citizens evacuated from Gaza treated as suspects on return

A group of 71 residents of the enclave with Israeli passports were treated as potential Hamas sympathizers, interrogated and threatened. ‘After this, you will not return to Gaza. There will be no Gaza left to return to’

Israel-Hamas War
A group of people leave Gaza through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on December 18.AFP

When Amira returned home, no welcoming committee was waiting for her. The 30-year-old Arab-Israeli citizen and her two children, aged four and 18 months, arrived in Taba on Egypt’s border with Israel, along the Red Sea coast, on November 18. She left her husband and mother, who did not have authorization to leave because they do not have the same nationality, behind, under the bombs. Amira’s odyssey took her and her children across half of a territory devastated by the war until they reached Rafah. When she arrived in Egypt, exhausted, she crossed the entire Sinai Peninsula with other evacuees in a military convoy, whose personnel did not allow her and her children to rest or eat. When she set foot in Israel again, the only welcome she received was from Shin Bet — the Israeli intelligence service — which treated her as a suspect. “It was the worst thing about this process,” she says. “Tell us everything you know about Hamas!” they shouted at her amid threats, asking if her children were really hers. “They checked every photo, every number, and every message that was on my phone.”

Amira (a fictitious name as she prefers to keep her real identity hidden) is part of a group of 71 Israelis who managed to leave Gaza in two convoys on November 16 and December 6, all Arabs and most of Bedouin origin. Some left with the rest of the foreign nationals — no Gazans without citizenship or legal residency in Israel have been able to leave the Gaza Strip. She traveled with her children from her mother’s home in the town of Al Qarara, north of Khan Younis, going from shelter to shelter amid the rubble with a few basic necessities, heading for the Rafah border crossing, the only exit point from Gaza to Egypt. Unlike those rescued from the Gaza Strip with U.S., French or Spanish passports, the Israelis who managed to escape the destruction were unable to take many of their closest relatives with them. In the contingent, most were women who married Gazans, moved, settled, and started families. In many cases, their husbands and children have remained there.

“It was a very painful journey, all along the way there was shelling,” recalls Amira, who now lives with her Israeli family. “There was no gas, there was nothing. In the end, we found a car that took us to the border, but we had to pay the driver double because he didn’t want to take the risk of taking us,” she continues. When they crossed at Rafah, they were searched from top to bottom. Exhausted, they had to wait for hours sitting on the ground until a bus escorted by the Egyptian military picked them up and took them to Taba through Sinai. “My husband and my mother were not allowed to cross. They had to stay in Gaza,” says Amira. “My four-year-old daughter knew what was going on. When she heard the explosions, she covered her ears and kept screaming. I could tell my little son was scared too, because he kept moving and looking at the windows. We had to leave. We could have all been killed in a bombing.”

Two Israeli human rights organizations were responsible for coordinating the evacuation with the Israeli government. Both NGOs are in charge of arranging military permits so that these families can meet their relatives on both sides of the border. Around 15% of Gazans have relatives in Israel, and intermarriage is common on both sides of the fence. “It’s what in Israel is called the ‘split-family procedure.’ Most of them are women who, for years, have turned to us to obtain permits that allow them to live permanently in Gaza and return to Israel to visit relatives,” says Daniel Shenhar, the director of HaMoked’s legal department, which, together with the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement (Gisha), has worked intensively to get these people out.

“The problem for these couples, a lot of the time, is the children,” Shenhar continues. “Many of these women have ensured that their children born in Gaza have Israeli documentation that allows them to periodically leave and enter Israel, but when they turn 18, they have to leave the Gaza Strip and, from that moment on, they are already forbidden from returning home, because they are not given permits.” For that reason, many others, when they reach adulthood, stay. Although they retain Israeli citizenship, they cannot leave Gaza.

After the initial confusion in the days following the Hamas attacks, HaMoked and Gisha got to work. Both organizations contacted COGAT, the Israeli Defense Ministry agency that manages civilian affairs in the occupied territories. “We spent weeks calling and writing to them to explain that there were Israeli citizens in Gaza and that we wanted to get them out,” says Shenhar. “We sent them a list of everyone we had been in contact with since before the war started. Surprisingly, they promised us they would get them out. I remember we thought it was a bit strange with such an enraged atmosphere in the country.”

Missing or dead

Drawing up that list was an arduous and largely fruitless task. “We were not able to contact everyone. Many of those on our records, about half of them, did not answer the phone. We believe they may be missing or dead,” Shenhar continues. What they did do was ask those who responded to spread the word to others in a similar situation. Faced with the prospect of being part of a divided family, there were women eligible to leave who decided to stay because they had not arranged Israeli documentation for their children. Others did not want to be separated from their husbands. HaMoked and Gisha are now asking COGAT to allow them to leave with their children, but have so far received no response.

Among the Arabs with Israeli nationality who were trapped were several families, women with children, who arrived in Gaza in the days before the war began with special permission from the military to visit sick relatives, attend a wedding, or a funeral. When the bombs started falling, they were locked in.

Now safe, Amira recounts that the most dramatic part of her journey was arriving in Israel, after hours without food or drink. “After checking and rechecking our papers, the agents wanted to make sure that my children were really mine and to prove it I had to show them cell phone pictures of them in my house,” she says. “Then, one by one, they put us in interrogation rooms and started asking us questions.” It mattered little that Amira is an Israeli national. “They would ask me where Hamas people are, or if I dealt with or worked for Hamas. ‘Tell us everything you know about Hamas, where the rockets are, if you know anyone from Hamas.’ I told them I didn’t know anything.”

Then another investigator arrived, apparently playing good cop. Amira says he gave her son chocolate and said: “Look how we treat Palestinian children, instead of killing them, like Hamas did.” “But they are Israeli children, with Israeli documents,” she replied. “They have nothing to do with Hamas or the war. There are children dying and it’s not my fault or theirs.” Three people in the group were arrested, she says, and others were shouted at and accused of celebrating the October 7 attacks. “After this, you will not return to Gaza. There will be no Gaza left to return to. We are not going to allow you a single mistake, we are going to watch you,” the agents said. Amira explained that she hoped to settle in Israel with her husband and mother. “That’s not going to happen,” she was told. “Think about taking your husband out to go to another country.”

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