Canadians stuck in Gaza tentatively set to leave as early as Tuesday

Dalia Salim has spent the last few days desperately trying to pass messages on to her father from the Canadian government about when he will be able to escape the besieged Gaza Strip.

As far as she knows, her 66-year-old father Sami has been sleeping in a tent on a vacant lot in the southern part of the territory, awaiting word that his name would be added to list of foreign nationals allowed to cross the Rafah border in Egypt and return to Canada.

Communication has been difficult since her father lost phone service, and they've mainly been reduced to passing messages to each other through other people camped out around him.

She got the news that he would finally be able to leave on Monday, but then discovered the border between Gaza and Egypt was closed. She reached out to an agent with Global Affairs Canada to find out what that would mean.

"He got back to me and said no, he shouldn't go on Monday because the border is closed and there's going to be delays," said Salim, who lives in London, Ont.

Global Affairs also informed her that evacuations for Canadian citizens, permanent residents and family members were now tentatively scheduled to begin as early as Tuesday, she said.

But the agency has no information about when the Rafah border crossing will reopen, it said in an updated statement Sunday, and did not confirm the delayed departure date.

An evacuation list from the General Authority for Border Crossings in Gaza, as presented on a widely-shared Google spreadsheet, has not been updated since Friday night.

Global Affairs said the federal government is in touch with 596 Canadians, permanent residents and their family members in the Gaza Strip. Of those, nearly 450 are on the list of eligible people who want to leave Gaza.

So far three Canadians have made it across the border with a third party, it added.

The agency had previously told affected people they may be able to leave "as early as Sunday," but the trickle of foreigners allowed to use the Rafah border crossing came to a halt on Saturday amid escalating attacks from Israel in retaliation for Hamas' brutal Oct. 7 incursion into that country that killed at least 1,400 people.

The war entered what Israeli officials described as a new phase on Sunday as the country's military announced it had encircled Gaza City and divided the besieged coastal strip in two.

“Today there is north Gaza and south Gaza,” Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari told reporters, calling it a “significant stage” in Israel’s war against the Hamas militant group. Israeli media reported that troops are expected to enter Gaza City within 48 hours.

With a backlog of foreign nationals waiting to get out of Gaza, Salim expects the actual timeline for Canadians to depart will depend on when the border reopens.

"They're not going to be able to give us an answer," she said of the Canadian government. "They're just saying, basically, 'stay put, you are registered, and the evacuation will happen in the next few days.'"

If the standstill at the border is resolved, Canada's ambassador to Egypt hopes to see as many as 200 Canadians come through on the first day, he told CTV's Question Period Sunday.

Ambassador Louis Dumas warned, however, that many other countries haven't been able to get everyone on the list through the border on their assigned day.

"We hope all of them will come through but we have to be responsible and work on that contingency plan in case they cannot come during a given day," he said.

Canada has a team of consular officials stationed in Egypt ready to move quickly to the border once it gets the go-ahead from Egyptian authorities, the government confirmed Saturday. Egypt is only allowing foreign embassies to be at the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing once the evacuation of their residents from Gaza has been confirmed.

There were no clear reasons behind the closure at the Rafah crossing. A spokesman with the Palestinian Crossings Authority said Saturday that officials in Gaza didn't allow foreign passport holders to leave because Israel was preventing the evacuation of Palestinian patients for treatment in Egypt.

Despite appeals and overseas demonstrations, including in Canada, Israel has continued its bombardment across Gaza saying it is targeting Hamas and accusing it of using civilians as human shields. Critics say Israel’s strikes are often disproportionate, considering the large number of civilians killed.

Salim called someone close to her father on Saturday to tell him not to go to the border on Monday and wait for her to call again. As she spoke, the TV broadcast she was watching in the background announced a potential interruption to cell service in Gaza. By late Sunday, a "new collapse in connectivity" was being reported by and confirmed by Palestinian telecom company Paltel.

"If he's on the list, I don't know, how will he find out?" she asked.

Another London woman, Samah Al-Sabbagh, learned that her father's scheduled departure has also been postponed. She expects he will be allowed to cross the border on Tuesday, though she doesn't know how he'll reach the crossing.

Her 73-year-old father, Akram, was visiting his family in Gaza when the war between Hamas and Israel broke out.

He's now trapped in the northern part of the territory with limited food and water, Al-Sabbagh said. The situation is scary and she fears the road to the border is even more dangerous.

"It's literally a death sentence," she said of travelling Salah al-Deen, the 45-kilometre road that runs north and south in the Gaza Strip.

"The airstrikes are non stop. They're non stop. Unless we call for immediate ceasefire there's no way we can guarantee the safety of our loved ones."

The Israeli military ordered civilians in Northern Gaza, including Gaza City, to evacuate to the south on Oct. 13 as it focused its attack on key Hamas assets, tunnels and bunkers in the area.

Israel estimates hundreds of thousands of Palestinians chose to remain or were unable to leave.

On Sunday, Israel allowed a four-hour window for more Palestinians to head south, dropping leaflets urging people to leave as its forces advance in the outskirts of Gaza City.

Some Palestinians appeared to heed the order as intense bombardment continued in the northern part of the territory.

When Global Affairs Canada called Al-Sabbagh to tell her that her father was on the list to leave Tuesday, she asked how he should get to the border crossing in the southernmost part of the territory.

"They say, 'We are sorry, we can't help you there," she said.

Al-Sabbagh wants Canada to pressure Israel for a ceasefire and a humanitarian corridor that will allow civilians to escape to safety.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not called for a ceasefire, citing Israel's right to defend itself under international law, but has suggested a "humanitarian pause" to the hostilities.

A humanitarian pause was not mentioned in the public summary of Trudeau's call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released by the Prime Minister's Office Saturday, though it suggests he did "reaffirmed the importance of upholding international humanitarian law and making every effort to protect Palestinian civilians."

Netanyahu reiterated his stance Sunday that there would be no ceasefire until Hamas returned the hostages taken during the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

“We say this to both our enemies and our friends. We will continue until we beat them,” he said, addressing pilots at the Ramon Air Force base in southern Israel Sunday.

The Palestinian death toll in the Israel-Hamas war reached 9,700, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza. In the occupied West Bank, more than 140 Palestinians have been killed in violence and Israeli raids.

More than 1,400 people in Israel have been killed, most of them in the Hamas attack that started the fighting, and 242 hostages were taken from Israel into Gaza by the militant group.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2023.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Laura Osman and Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press