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Palestinian Australians say their families can’t leave Gaza despite having valid Australian visas

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14 January 2024, ABC, by Zena Chamas

Israa Almassri’s only wish was to have her mother safely out of Gaza and by her side in time for the birth of her baby.

But her 60-year-old mother, Fatma Almassri, is still stuck in southern Gaza, and Israa gave birth to her daughter a few weeks ago in Adelaide without her there.

Fatma and her family are trying to flee Gaza after a temporary visa was granted in November.

Hundreds of Palestinian Australians are in a similar situation; waiting for family members with approved visas to get a green light from border officials to leave.

But the journey is dangerous due to checkpoints, bribes, and “life-threatening” conditions, Israa says.

‘We need help to leave’

More than 23,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since the start of the war in October, while 1.9 million people are displaced without clean drinking water or adequate food, according to the United Nations.

The recent war started after Hamas-led militants stormed communities in southern Israel and killed some 1,200 people, by Israeli estimates.

Fatma described the harrowing conditions on the ground in Gaza.

“We can’t sleep from fear of being killed next,” she told the ABC.

“Death and the sound of the bombing is terrifying. The amount of dead bodies we see daily is horrific … I’m scared I’ll lose my children.

“My daughter [in Australia] needs me. I want to be there to help her with her newborn child, but we need help to leave.”

According to non-profit organisation Palestine Australia Relief and Action (PARA), Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade recently emailed letters to hundreds of Australian citizens who registered their family members in Gaza for consular assistance.

The letters informed visa applicants and their families that DFAT would not provide consular assistance to anybody who wasn’t considered “immediate family”.

Israa says she was disappointed and “really depressed” when she received the letter.

“They’re making [my mum’s] way out of Gaza really hard … they’re not considering my mum as immediate family.

“If my mum isn’t [my immediate family] then who else is?”

Rasha Abbas, executive director of PARA, says the community is baffled by this decision because in Palestinian culture parents are always considered immediate family.

PARA has been providing support to the Gazans who have arrived in Australia and their family members.

Ms Abbas says having approved visas “means nothing” without the government’s support to safely exit Gaza.

In a statement to the ABC, a DFAT spokesperson says the Australian government has to date supported 148 Australian citizens, permanent residents, and their family members, to depart Gaza.

They did not address why parents are not considered as immediate family.

“Exiting Gaza is difficult and unpredictable.The ability of the Australian government to help is extremely limited,” the spokesperson said.

Who leaves Gaza is in the hands of Israel, expert says

Anas Iqtait, a lecturer at the Australian National University Centre’s for Arab and Islamic Studies, says the Rafah crossing — which straddles the border of Egypt and Gaza — is currently the only way out of Gaza.

It’s also the only entry point for humanitarian aid.

Only people with their names on a daily list taped up at the crossing are allowed to cross into Egypt.

Professor Iqtait says the list is approved by the Israeli and Egyptian authorities, but Israeli officials get the ultimate say.

“The conversation [of who can exit Gaza] starts and ends with Israel, this is why anyone who leaves the Rafah crossing at the moment must have their name cleared by the Israeli intelligence and the Israeli military,” he says.

Once these names are cleared, the Israeli military sends these names to their Egyptian counterparts, he adds.

But according to Israa, Gazans leaving for Australia “very rarely” appear on this list.

“We can see the name of each country above each list. There’s been no Australia for weeks [up to December],” she said.

The ABC understands that over the past month, there have only been about a dozen Gazans listed as leaving for Australia — and most of them have been females.

Professor Iqtait says it is “highly unlikely” for Palestinian men, aged between 15 and 45, to get approval to leave the Gaza Strip given Israel’s tight security.

“[Many organisations] have been advocating for the Australian government to be more forceful with their Israeli counterparts, particularly with humanitarian issues and issues that pertain to Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip,” he says.

“But the Australian government seems to have a hands-off approach towards this by saying: ‘This is out of our hands. There’s nothing that we can do’.”

Vulnerable Gazans reportedly pay bribes to exit

The situation at the Rafah border is also complicated because the crossing has a long history of corruption, Professor Iqtait says.

Israa says her mother and other family members with approved visas have been asked by Egyptian officials working at the crossing to pay $US7,000 ($10,408) per person as “a bribe” to exit Gaza — but with no guarantees.

She says her family couldn’t afford it.

“We know some people who paid money to get out and it worked,” she said.

“So if you got money … they’ll let you out.”

According to Arabic media, it’s corrupt Egyptian officials who are asking for the bribes.

Meanwhile, a recent Guardian investigation found the bribes asked by a network of brokers and couriers with alleged links to the Egyptian intelligence services.

The ABC could not verify these claims and has reached out to the Egyptian embassy in Australia for comment.

Several Palestinian Australians who spoke to the ABC on condition of anonymity say they’re worried about the safety of their families and can’t afford the bribes. Some even have resorted to launching crowdfunding campaigns to raise the money.

Ms Abbas says over the past few days, at least two civilians with approved temporary visas to Australia have been killed while waiting to exit.

DFAT says it does not respond to individual cases and has not responded to questions about these specific claims.

PARA is calling on the Australian government to push harder at the border to help Australians safely exit.

The possibility of losing her family before they’re able to exit worries Israa every day.

She applied for visas for her father, two sisters, and their families. While the others have been approved, her father is still waiting for an outcome.

Her mother, Fatma, says the conditions have been “really hard” in Gaza.

“The weather is cold and makes things a lot harder,” she says.

“There are lots of diseases. We have to wait a long time to even go to the toilet.”

Israa is pleading with the Australian government to help get her family out of Gaza.

“We are more than happy to provide all the support [that they need] … just [help] them out of Gaza.”

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Article source: ABC | Zena Chamas | 14 January 2024

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000