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A lucky few are leaving Gaza. Others are forced to return

A man reacts as he sits near the gate to the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the south of the Gaza Strip on November 3, 2023.
Said Khatib
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AFP via Getty Images
A man reacts as he sits near the gate to the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the south of the Gaza Strip on November 3, 2023.

Updated November 3, 2023 at 12:23 PM ET

JERUSALEM — We are co-hosting the program from different locations this week, to hear different perspectives on the Mideast war.

On Monday, we were in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, where Hamas rockets sometimes strike. On Wednesday, we reported from Ramallah, on the occupied West Bank. Today, we are in Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its capital, though the city's status, like so much else, is disputed. From each location, we have turned toward the war zone in Gaza.

As this week ends, we can report that some people are getting out — and some are being sent in. NPR's Daniel Estrin has been following this all night.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

NPR is hosting Morning Edition from different locations across then Mideast this week — from Tel Aviv, Ramallah in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Ziad Buchh / Steve Inskeep
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Steve Inskeep
NPR is hosting Morning Edition from different locations across then Mideast this week — from Tel Aviv, Ramallah in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

STEVE INSKEEP: We should just reset the map for people: Israel has blocked the land exits from Gaza. They are the dominant power on three sides. That leaves a crossing on a little bit of border with Egypt. What's happening there?

DANIEL ESTRIN: That is Gaza's only portal right now to the outside world, and Egypt has opened that portal, its border crossing, today for a third day in a row. The vast majority of Gazans will not get to cross and not get to leave. This is only open to the lucky few. A few 100 in Gaza are being allowed to leave every day: international aid workers, Palestinians with foreign nationalities, or Palestinians with connections to foreign countries and foreign employers. Our colleague NPR producer Anas Baba has been there on the ground, at the border crossing, every day that it's been open. Here's what he told me he saw on the first day:

BABA: "It was totally unbelievable. There was only a list that holds 400 names. We witnessed at least 1,500 people just struggling and begging for anyone just to make the crossing to save their own lives."

INSKEEP: That's a very real concern, since Israel's bombardment continues. So who decides who gets on the list, Daniel?

ESTRIN: Well, there's a daily list published of who gets to travel that day. It's published every night. It's posted on Facebook by the Hamas-run administration in Gaza. But you can see the Hebrew word "unclassified" at the top. So it appears that Israel is vetting the names here. Yesterday, Palestinian-Americans appeared on this list for the very first time. When our producer went there to see them at the border; he described scenes that are just excruciating: People leaving someone behind, families torn apart. He met an eight year old boy from New Jersey who was visiting his grandparents in Gaza when this war broke out. Now he was getting to go back home, but leaving his grandparents behind. Here is our producer Anas Baba speaking to that eight year old, Iyad Okal.

BABA: "What do you want to say to all the children around the world about Gaza?"

IYAD OKAL: "That they need to get out of Palestine as soon as possible."

ESTRIN: He also met Wafa Elsaka, who moved to America years ago. She lives in Tallahassee, Florida. We've been following her story throughout the war. And she finally appeared on the list to be able to go.

WAFA ELSAKA [crying]: "It's a mixed feeling, of leaving behind my loved ones, my dad, my mom, my family, but I have to go to my other family, my husband, my son, my grandson. I think God has his point. I don't know what it is. But this is the taxes [price] of going abroad, I guess. Get education and look for a better life. So it's not that I'm sad, I'm not sad. I'm thankful I'm able to go back home."

ESTRIN: And when she returns to the U.S.?

ELSAKA: "I'm gonna take a long shower, a long bath, because for the past 25 days, I didn't take any, and then be with my family. Love them more and more. And just pray. I told God to take care of the rest of my family because I can't do anything anymore."

ESTRIN: Now today's list was published around 2:30am here. Nearly 600 people are on that list: more Palestinian Americans, people from other countries. Anas Baba went back to the border, met a pharmacist, Sam Salouha. He was sending away his young kids, and he's staying behind to take care of his ill dad. And here is what he wants people listening to his voice to know.

SALOUHA: "I want you to be lucky, and cherish everything. When you go to the bathroom and flush you know, cherish that moment, because we don't have that option. If you need bread and if you use a microwave, you are lucky to have that option."

INSKEEP: Some of the voices of people getting out of Gaza. But Daniel, as you've underlined, most people stay in. What does Gaza look like now?

Gaza laborers working in Israel when the war began were rounded up and detained by Israeli authorities, and on Friday were sent back to Gaza with ankle tags numbering them.
/ Anas Baba for NPR
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Anas Baba for NPR
Gaza laborers working in Israel when the war began were rounded up and detained by Israeli authorities, and on Friday were sent back to Gaza with ankle tags numbering them.

ESTRIN: Well, as of last night, the Israeli army says its troops are now surrounding Gaza City, where Israel says Hamas is headquartered. There are still civilians. They're trapped in that besieged city, people I've spoken to and some who are even meant to be traveling out of Gaza today, but it's very dangerous to get out from that city.

I should tell you about something else extraordinary, Steve. People, a few 100 people, are being allowed to escape the war zone today. But Israel is sending in to Gaza thousands of people into that war zone for the very first time. Thousands of Gaza laborers who were working in Israel when the war broke out. They were rounded up by Israel, detained, and our producers saw throngs of them. Thousands, walking into Gaza by foot. They were dropped off by an Israeli bus. One of them was even wearing a bright orange Israeli prison jumpsuit.

One of the thousands of Gaza laborers who were working in Israel when the war broke out and detained.
/ Amas Baba
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Amas Baba
One of the thousands of Gaza laborers who were working in Israel when the war broke out and detained.

INSKEEP: Wow.

ESTRIN: This is a video that our producer filmed. He saw him walking into Gaza, saying, "I'm coming from death and I'm going to death." And last night, Israel's security cabinet announced that it's severing all contact with Gaza. Israel is sending home all those Gazan workers who were trapped in Israel on the day of the war.

Editor's note: Abood Okal and his wife Wafaa Abuzayda, who were featured in a different segment on Morning Edition, managed to cross the border to Egypt on Thursday. They've been through numerous attempts, and their attorney has released a statement stating they are exhausted and worried about their family members remaining in Gaza.

Check out npr.org/mideastupdates for more coverage, differing views and analysis of this conflict. Get the latest updates from NPR's reporters in the morning by subscribingto the Up First newsletter.

Anas Baba contributed reporting from Rafah. Reena Advani and Ziad Buchh contributed from the West Bank. Majd Al-Waheidi edited the digital version. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Wafaa Abuzayda, her husband Abood Okal and their one-year-old son Yousef.
/ Wafaa Abuzayda
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Wafaa Abuzayda
Wafaa Abuzayda, her husband Abood Okal and their one-year-old son Yousef.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.