Canadian government tells people stuck in Gaza they could leave 'as early as Sunday'

OTTAWA — Global Affairs Canada has informed Canadians trapped in the Gaza Strip that they could be allowed out "as early as Sunday," as people with loved ones in the besieged Palestinian territory voiced frustration that Canadians remained off the evacuation list so far.

Groups of people, including foreign nationals from several other countries, have been allowed to exit the Palestinian territory through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the last two days.

But Canadians have so far been excluded from the lists of those approved to depart, including the third one issued on Friday.

The Israeli military has informed Canada that "more than 400 Canadian citizens, permanent residents and eligible family members will be able to leave Gaza through the Rafah border crossing in the coming days," reads a Friday afternoon statement from Global Affairs Canada.

That confirmation came after the department emailed Canadians who have registered as being in Gaza, saying the crossings could happen"in the coming days, and possibly as early as Sunday."

"We will contact you with specific departure dates," the email said. "Please have your travel documents and other important items with you."

It offered a warning: "The situation at the Rafah crossing remains fluid and unpredictable. We encourage you to assess the risks as you or your family members decide whether to travel to the Rafah border crossing. Canada does not determine who is ultimately permitted to enter Egypt at the Rafah border crossing."

The email further said that consular officials would be on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing to assist evacuees, including with onward travel to Canada.

In addition to helping to facilitate transportation to Cairo by bus, "while in Cairo, Canada will provide accommodation, food and basic necessities to those who cross into Egypt," Global Affairs said in its statement to media.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Friday that the government will be there to help Canadians get to safety.

"We are working with all of our regional officials and our allies to make sure that as Canadians come out to safety, hopefully in the coming days, they are properly supported."

Dalia Salim, a resident of London, Ont., whose 66-year-old father is trapped in Gaza and is spending his days searching for safe drinking water, said the email offered "relief."

"This is the first time that we actually have a confirmed date," she said in an interview.

"I'm still looking at it and I read it over and over. It says 'as early as' so I'm taking it with a grain of salt, and I will wait for an email Saturday night to confirm."

Sunday is "still too late," she added, expressing fear over whether her father can stay safe through the weekend.

Sunday "would be day five of the border opening. (The war) is getting uglier, minute by minute. I cannot guarantee anything until Sunday. No one can guarantee anything until Sunday," she said.

"My dad is staying on a vacant land, which is so prone to bombing. How am I supposed to wait until Sunday to make sure that he's OK?"

Defence Minister Bill Blair said earlier Friday that Canadians could be allowed to leave Gaza "in the coming days," but offered no firm timeline.

Blair told reporters in Ottawa on Friday there is "no specific impediment" to getting those people out. He said the Canadian government is working closely with Israel, Egypt, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Global Affairs Canada has not explained why Canadians have not made the list so far.

The department noted in written updates sent Wednesday and Thursday that the first group allowed to cross included citizens from eight countries with smaller groups of nationals in Gaza. It also said "Canada has one of the largest contingents of nationals in Gaza."

The department has not said whether that would delay Canadians getting out, or why.

Thursday's evacuation list from the General Authority for Border Crossings in Gaza, as presented on a widely shared Google spreadsheet, included 400 American citizens. The list shared Friday had 367 Americans. In one day, Britain has had 127 people listed as approved for departing through the Rafah crossing.

Jon Allen, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel, said the effort is "very complicated," but he wasn't sure if countries with the most citizens would end up being among the first or last to leave.

"It does make sense that if you have a higher number, then you're going to try and reduce that number. But I don't know if that's the case," Allen said in an interview Friday.

Allen helped oversee the 2009 effort to evacuate dozens of Canadians from Gaza during an earlier war between Israel and Hamas. He said these efforts involved communicating with several governments to get everyone on the same page.

"It is a war and there are these processes that are inevitably going to have to be gone through," he said.

Concerns about the risk of Hamas sympathizers crossing into Egypt could be one reason for general delays, Allen said.

"The Canadians will come out, and I feel sympathy for all of those that are there."

Ola Alanqar, whose Canadian parents and uncle are trapped in Gaza, said her family is desperate to leave.

"Yesterday I spoke to (them) and they were barely drinking water, they're hungry, they're losing a lot of weight, there's no sleep," the Toronto resident said in an interview.

"It's beyond what I can even explain."

"Yesterday, my father told me he was trying to get some bread from the bakery and he saw pieces of bodies. He said, 'I saw somebody picking up body pieces, putting in plastic bag and no car, no ambulance can go there,'" Alanqar said.

"I was on the phone with my mom for eight minutes. I heard more than 10 bombs exploding. I was devastated. I couldn't sleep. My whole body was shaking."

More than 1,400 people in Israel have been killed, most of them civilians slain in the initial Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, which Canada has listed as a terrorist organization since 2002. In addition, around 240 hostages were taken from Israel into Gaza by the militant group.

Gaza's Hamas-run health ministry claims Israel's military response has killed more than 9,000 Palestinians.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2023.

— With files from The Associated Press.

The Canadian Press