British citizens trapped at Rafah crossing ‘being used as bargaining chips’

A British woman was denied passage through the Rafah border crossing into Egypt again on Saturday as her mother in the UK spoke of how foreign nationals in Gaza are “being used as bargaining chips”.

Zaynab Wandawi, 29, from Salford in Greater Manchester, travelled to Gaza at the beginning of October with her husband, who is British Palestinian, and his relatives for a family member’s wedding before the Israel-Hamas war erupted.

Ms Wandawi, an English language teacher, and a group of 12 family members – 10 of whom are British nationals, attempted to cross the border into Egypt on Wednesday, but were told their names were not on the list.

The group were told their names were on the list to cross into Egypt on Saturday, but were turned away from the border amid disagreement between the Palestinian and Israeli authorities in control of the crossing, according to her mother, Lalah Ali-Faten.

The Foreign Office said the temporary closure of the Rafah crossing was “disappointing” and it was pressing for the key border post to be reopened.

Ms Ali-Faten, 52, from Prestwich, north Manchester, told the PA news agency: “It seems now that they’re being used as a bargaining chip, the foreign nationals.”

Israel-Hamas conflict
Zaynab Wandawi travelled to Gaza with her husband for a family wedding at the beginning of October (Lalah Ali-Faten/PA)

She said she received a voice note from her daughter and a “one-minute phone call” explaining that foreign nationals trapped in Gaza would not be leaving until the ambulances carrying the sick and injured left first.

Ms Ali-Faten said she was told Israeli authorities said ambulances could leave but would not be permitted back into Gaza to prevent them from being targeted, while Palestinian authorities said no foreign nationals would be allowed to leave on Saturday if the ambulances were not permitted to return.

“I know the Israelis want the foreign nationals out so it doesn’t get too messy for them and they don’t have any international entanglements and complaints from other countries,” she said.

“And the Palestinians are saying, ‘no, we want the ambulances to leave, deliver the sick and injured to the hospital and return to the other civilians’.

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Lalah Ali-Faten said her daughter Zaynab Wandawi (pictured) and family members are sheltering in a house close to the Rafah crossing (Lalah Ali-Faten/PA)

“But Israelis don’t want the ambulances to return, so I think the foreign nationals are kind of stuck in the middle of this disagreement.”

Ms Ali-Faten said “every single day has been a living nightmare” and her daughter sounded “so deflated” upon hearing the news they would not be able to leave Gaza.

“When I saw that her name on the list this morning I was absolutely ecstatic,” she said.

“I thought, this is the end of the nightmare, I’m reaching the end of this chapter.

“She (Ms Wandawi) called me, she couldn’t get through properly so she sent me a voice message and her voice was just so deflated.

“She said, ‘we’re back home now, we weren’t allowed to leave and this is the reason why’.

“It just continues the turmoil and the horror that we’re facing.”

She added that it is “very painful” to see footage emerging from Gaza.

“I look at the screen, I see the loss of life and it’s so many children and families just losing their lives indiscriminately,” she said.

“My daughter and her family are in that location so it’s very painful to watch because you kind of feel it.

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Zaynab Wandawi was born in Salford, Greater Manchester (Lalah Ali-Faten/PA)

“As a parent, you know your child is amongst those that are being bombed.

“And it’s very frustrating that they’re kind of caught in the middle.

“They’re kind of pawns now really, aren’t they?”

Ms Ali-Faten said she believes the Foreign Office is “not doing enough to advocate for the citizens trapped in Gaza” and needs to “do more to be a part of the discussion and the mediation”.

“It’s not good enough for them to say, ‘oh we’ve just passed their names on, there’s nothing further we can do’, which is what I’m told every time I call the FCDO,” she said.

“I don’t believe that, I think there is a way they can be more instrumental in getting the citizens out.

“Just passing the list of names, I’m sorry, that doesn’t cut it as a government.”

Ms Ali-Faten said if anything happens to her family members, the Government would “carry that responsibility”.

“Further than passing on their names, they are doing nothing for the British nationals that are getting bombed every single day, it’s not acceptable,” she said.

A spokesperson from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said: “We are disappointed that the Rafah crossing has been temporarily closed today.

“This continues to be a complex and challenging situation and we are using all diplomatic channels to press for its reopening in coordination with our international partners.

“We remain in contact with British Nationals in the region to provide them with the latest information.

“It is vital that the safe passage of people, including all foreign nationals, and humanitarian aid can continue.”