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Sixteen South Africans ‘trapped in Gaza, unable to get out’

Sixteen South Africans ‘trapped in Gaza, unable to get out’
An Israeli armoured vehicle drives past a soldier at a road near the border with Gaza, southern Israel, 15 October 2023.(Photo: EPA-EFE / Abir Sultan)

The South Africans are on a UN rescue list, ready to be moved out of besieged Gaza when the opportunity arises.

At least 16 South Africans are trapped in Gaza as Israel continues its massive aerial bombardment of the territory and prepares to launch a ground attack.

The South Africans are on United Nations lists of those ready to be evacuated when or if the opportunity arises, South Africa’s ambassador to Palestine, Shaun Byneveldt, told Daily Maverick

He said the number of South Africans in distress in Gaza had risen from 10 to 16 over the past few days as Israel’s assault on Gaza intensified. Israel aims to destroy Hamas and its ability to conduct another deadly attack on Israel like the one it launched on 7 October.

south africans gaza

Residents of Gaza City evacuate while Israel continues bombing of the Gaza strip, 15 October 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Mohammed Saber)

“They are trapped in Gaza, unable to get out,” Byneveldt said.

“But we are in contact with the UN and they are on the UN evacuation list, ready to be moved out when the opportunity arises.”

“There’s a total siege. There’s no way in or out,” he said.

He said 15 were in south Gaza, in response to the Israeli Defence Forces’ warning to Gazans to move out of northern Gaza to avoid being caught in the crossfire when its ground forces enter the territory, which is believed to be imminent.

He said he believed they were in UN shelters, ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice.

Byneveldt added that one South African woman had refused to move south because of a money issue.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Ramaphosa calls for opening of Gaza humanitarian corridor, end to rampant Israel-Hamas violence

He said that since the fighting broke out on 7 October, 120 South Africans in Israel or Palestine had contacted the SA embassies in both countries to inform them of their presence. Some in Israel had encountered problems flying out because of the interruption of air services after Hamas fired rockets from Gaza into Israel last weekend. 

But none of these were still in distress and air flights had partly normalised. Only the 16 in Gaza were in distress now. Daily Maverick asked Byneveldt if the SA government had made any arrangements with Egypt to evacuate South Africans through the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt has closed the Rafah border as an escape hatch for most Gazans, but the US and Egypt apparently made an agreement for US citizens in Gaza to get out that way.

“I’m not in a position to confirm any agreement with Egypt,” Byneveldt said.

He said the embassy in Palestine was in contact with the embassy in Cairo regarding possible evacuation.

South Africans describe terror and anguish

Meanwhile, Haidar Eid, a dual Palestine-South African national teaching literature in Gaza, said he and his family had been moved twice since the fighting started, once when their flat was bombed by Israel in northern Gaza and then a second time when he moved south to stay with his sister in Rafah after Israel warned Gazans to evacuate the north.

Speaking through the Palestine Media Group, which is aligned with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, he said, “A genocide is unfolding in Gaza: 2,329 civilians have been killed by Israeli bombs over the last week, 660 children are among the dead and more than 470 women… A further 7,900 Palestinians are injured.”

He said the dead included his colleague, the former dean of the faculty of medicine at the Islamic University of Gaza, Omar Saleh Ferwana, who had been killed with his entire family when an Israeli bomb destroyed their apartment.

Eid called for South Africa to cut off all relations with Israel, including diplomatic, economic and sports relations.

“Israel is now ready, with full US and European support, to commit unprecedented massacres in its genocidal war on the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza.”

He said South Africans should demand an immediate ceasefire, the immediate inflow of humanitarian aid and UN protection for Palestinians in Gaza.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Gaza Strip — history of densely populated enclave is critical to understanding current conflict

On the other side of the conflict, Gili Romann described the anguish of his family as they tried to establish the fate of his 35-year-old younger sister Yarden who was abducted by Hamas during its attack on the Be’eri kibbutz on 7 October.

Speaking at a briefing arranged by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he said the family had just returned from a three-week trip to South Africa. His sister and brother-in-law had lived in the kibbutz for four years, but could not tolerate the insecurity of living constantly under fire. 

“And we wanted a safer place for her. So they had just left the kibbutz a month ago and they came to visit.”

They returned for a Shabbat dinner on Friday with her husband’s family and stayed overnight, which meant they were caught up in the Hamas attack early on Saturday.

He said when he started getting messages from Yarden about sirens going off on Saturday morning, he thought nothing of it as air raid sirens and rockets were routine. Then when he heard about the gunshots he realised it was not routine.

He last spoke to Yarden at about 10am on Saturday. Twenty minutes later she was taken out of the room she was in alongside her sister-in-law Carmel and her mother-in-law Kimeret, all separately.

Yarden, her husband, Elon, and their three-year-old daughter were thrown into a Mitsubishi and driven fast towards Gaza. For some reason the vehicle stopped just short of the border and their armed guards left the vehicle.

The captives managed to get out of the vehicle and ran towards the woods, pursued by four armed men shooting at them. Yarden was carrying her daughter but when she realised she was running too slowly she handed the child to Elon, who got away, hid and eventually made his way back to the kibbutz. The last he saw of Yarden, she was hiding behind a tree to try to avoid being shot.

Romann said when he heard what had happened he immediately drove into the war zone to look for her. He never found any trace of her but said he hoped she and their sister-in-law Carmel were healthy and alive among the 100-plus hostages being held by Hamas.

“We can still save human lives,” he said but added, “We still want proof of life.”

At the briefing, Israeli Defence Forces spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said the army had found the bodies of hostages close to the border with Gaza. He did not elaborate. He said the army was waiting for orders from the government to launch a ground attack.

The aim of the military operation was to destroy Hamas’s capability, to remove the threat of Hamas from ever being able “to butcher Israeli babies in their bedrooms”, he said.

Israel intended to “destroy the Hamas terrorist organisation… Hamas will not be able to govern the Gaza Strip as a staging ground for attacks against Israel and its civilians.”

Pretoria ‘recognises governments, not parties’

Meanwhile, in Pretoria, Dirco spokesperson Clayson Monyela told Daily Maverick that the government was still trying to establish the precise nationalities of two people identified in reports as South Africans who had died during the attack on Israel.

He said one had an Israeli identity number and so this was an issue for Israel, not South Africa, to deal with. The other appeared to have dual nationality and the Department of Home Affairs was trying to establish if this person had entered Israel on an Israeli or a South African passport. If the former, this would also be an issue for Israel, not SA, to deal with.

Monyela also denied that his government officially recognised the presence of Hamas in SA. The question arose because statements have emerged on social media, supposedly issued by “Emad Saber” who is described as Hamas’s representative in SA. The statement praises the SA government for its support of Palestine’s cause. 

Another similar statement purports to have been issued, also by Saber, but this time describing him only as a member of “Hamas International Relations”.

The authenticity of the statements has been questioned. Monyela also questioned their authenticity but said that in any case the SA government definitely did not recognise Hamas as it recognised only governments, not parties. 

He said that it was easy for anyone to issue a statement claiming to be the Hamas representative in South Africa. DM


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