As Israeli forces pressed a ground operation in Gaza on Friday, many Egyptians and foreigners fled to Egypt through the Rafah crossing, escaping what some said was “sure death” in the Palestinian enclave.
At least 274 Palestinians have been killed so far in the 11-day conflict between Israel and the Hamas Islamist movement that is the main power in Gaza.
The death toll soared on Friday as Israeli troops fanned out across parts of Gaza in search of tunnels they say are being used by Hamas to smuggle in rockets and to infiltrate Israeli lines.
Israeli boots on the ground proved the last straw for many Egyptians and foreigners, who had stayed on in Gaza during 10 days of blistering Israeli air strikes.
“I did not want to leave my house, but last night was very difficult with the ground operation,” said Sohair Massoud, an Egyptian mother of four, as she crossed into Egypt from Gaza through Rafah.
– Artillery, air strikes –
Massoud, who is married to a Palestinian, said Israeli forces struck her neighbourhood in the Palestinian side of Rafah with artillery fire and air strikes.
Escaping what she said was “sure death”, she decided to flee to Egypt.
However, even the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing was tense on Friday, with drones flying overhead and Egyptian army tanks along with ambulances and taxis lined up to assist families and wounded Palestinians as they arrived through the crossing.
A security official said the Egyptian authorities were allowing Egyptians and foreign nationals to enter “on humanitarian grounds” after confirming their identities. Palestinians are not permitted through the crossing except in special circumstances.
Um Ahmed, dressed in a traditional hijab and wearing a niqab, said her journey from her house in Gaza to the crossing had been “extremely difficult”.
She could scarcely believe she had managed to make it safely with her children under the barrage of Israeli artillery shelling.
“My husband’s cousin, who was part of the resistance (Hamas militants), was martyred and we have not received his body yet. We do not want to lose another member of our family,” she said.
“You saved us, you saved us,” said 50-year-old Algerian Elham Abu Daghma, praising an Egyptian soldier as she crossed through the frontier, speaking above the sound of deafening blasts on the Palestinian side.
Abu Daghma, also married to a Palestinian, moved to Gaza seven months ago but now all she wants to do is return to Algeria.
Life in the coastal strip, she said, had become “unbearable with no water, no electricity and no food”.
Those who managed to escape, however, fear for the safety of relatives still in Gaza.
“We lived through tough and deadly days and it will only get worse for our relatives who we unfortunately left behind in Gaza,” said Mosab, son of Um Ahmed.
His sister Samira was only too pleased to be out of Gaza, saying she felt she had been given a new lease of life.
“The shelling did not differentiate between the resistance and civilians. We could not even leave the house,” she said, holding her two-year-old daughter by the hand.
“We used to gather in one room, to be together in case we died.”