Trapped in Gaza, Canadians ask for help

When Canadian Marwan Diab decided to travel to Gaza with his wife and four children several weeks ago, he hadn't counted on starting the new year under fire. Now they're trapped in the Palestinian territory.

When Canadian Marwan Diab decided to travel to Gaza with his wife and four children several weeks ago, he hadn’t anticipated marking the start of the new year under fire.

A Palestinian carries a wounded girl to Shifa hospital in Gaza City on Tuesday. An Israeli bombardment hit outside a UN school where hundreds of Palestinians had sought refuge and Palestinian medics said at least 34 people died. (Hatem Moussa/Associated Press)

Diab, a Calgary psychologist, knows all about Gaza’s troubles. He was born in the Palestinian territory and often travels back and forth to visit family members who still live there.

But what he has endured over the past few days is unlike anything else in recent memory.

"This is the worst violence that’s ever happened, the most vicious cycle of violence in the past eight years," he told me by telephone.

Diab had come to offer condolences after his father-in-law passed away. He and his family got stuck behind the blockade aimed at punishing Hamas for relentless rocket attacks against Israel.

Since intense fighting started in late December, it has been a harrowing experience.

The family was forced to move when neighbours told Diab the area they were staying in was probably going to be targeted by Israeli air strikes. They left with few belongings — and just in time.

The next day, an air attack blew out the windows and obliterated a building nearby.

When I spoke to them, the Diab family had been living without electricity for three days. They bought water on the street, from the occasional peddlers brave enough to sell it door to door while the fighting raged on.

The sound of explosions fills their home.

Diab’s children, ranging in age from three to nine, are terrified and won't let their parents out of their sight.

Marwan Diab. (CBC)

"My daughter is clinging to me like there’s no tomorrow," he said. "She’s scared and shivering, because you cannot imagine the loudness of the rockets that are happening right now. You cannot imagine how extreme it is this time."

More than expected

Foreign Affairs says 58 Canadians in Gaza had registered with Canadian officials before the conflict started. The actual number is higher — we know that because we have spoken to many of them who had for one reason or another failed to register with the embassy.

In either case, the government told us on the weekend that 36 Canadians had requested assistance in evacuating Gaza once hostilities began, among them the six members of Diab’s family.

Canadian authorities submitted a request to the Israeli government asking for necessary permits so they could pass through Israel at the Erez border crossing on their way to get home. But the timing of the request was unfortunate.

Canadian officials say they submitted their request on Jan. 2, a day before the Israeli ground invasion began, and the same day that dozens of other foreign nationals had already safely made it across the border.

Russians, Americans, Turks and Norwegians were evacuated on Jan. 1. There wasn’t a single Canadian among them.

When asked why that was the case, Foreign Affairs said this: "Israeli officials have indicated that Monday, Jan. 5, would be the first window of opportunity for an assisted departure for Canadians."

But no Canadian officials could explain why the request didn’t come sooner than it did, as it had for all those other countries.

At least one Israeli official made it clear that by waiting as long as they did, Canadian officials had erred. It’s going to be far more complex — and dangerous — to evacuate Canadians now that a ground operation is in full swing.

Diab told to 'hang in'

Diab called Canadian officials last week, indicating a desire to be evacuated. He was told that he had registered too late and he would not be among the first group  leaving.

He had to wait and, as he put it, "hang in there" until a second evacuation could be organized.

Diab was extremely frustrated, especially for his children.

"I want to get them [out] as soon as possible. You cannot imagine the amount of violence that is happening, the magnitude of this wave of violence."

We reported on Sunday, Jan. 4, that the first group of Canadians —18 in all — was scheduled to leave the next day. The night before the planned evacuation, we talked to an Israeli foreign affairs spokesman about the process.

"There’s nothing we can do to ensure their safety," said Yigal Palmor. "Should they take the main road to the crossing, the army is informed of their movement and no harm should come to them anyway."

He added there were no guarantees that the border would be open, depending on the security situation on the ground.

As it turned out, the Canadians and others trying to get out that day never made it.

The bus they had boarded in Gaza, along with a number of other foreign nationals, had made it within one kilometre of the border crossing under International Red Cross escort. But after a harrowing trip out, they were forced to turn around due to security concerns.

They’re back in Gaza, waiting for the next opportunity to make a run for it .

Visitors cautioned

For eight years, Canada has cautioned Canadians and permanent residents against travel to Gaza. But for a variety of reasons, many continue to travel there.

In some cases, they take up residence. In others, circumstances dictate only a visit.

Take the case of Wafa and Ashraf Zakout, stranded in Gaza City.

The ambitious couple had applied for permanent residence status in Canada and were able to finally obtain it in September. But they decided to leave London, Ont., to return to Gaza one more time, to sell their home and settle their affairs before moving to Canada for good.

Both want to further their education and that's why they chose Canada as their new home.

They also wanted a better life for their son and daughter than the one they endured growing up in Gaza. They expected more from their new adopted country.

"We are all under shock," Wafa told me by telephone. "I expected the Canadian Embassy to do (something) and call the people who are under her supervision."

"This is the sixth night I didn’t sleep. I am so nervous and anxious because of the situation. I expected from them to make it easier for us."

We spoke to a number of Canadians who echoed Wafa's complaint.

Searching for diapers

Others, though, have no choice but to remain in Gaza, no matter what happens.

Montrealer Hamad Kashtah is Canadian, but his wife and two of his three children are not. He wouldn’t dream of leaving his family behind. So he decided to remain until he could sort out his family’s paperwork.

Since the blockade started, life for the Kashtah family has never been so difficult.

"Sometimes we search for two or three days for a can of baby milk, and two or three days for diapers," he said. "For two months the children haven’t seen fruit."

His youngest child has missed vaccinations because they were simply unavailable.

"We have no reserve at all. We had to make soup for the past week because there’s no meat. What are the children going to eat? Vegetables, that's it."

Even after all these years of living in Gaza and its troubles, Kashtah cannot believe how it’s changed. "This morning, I walked up the street and saw faces of death," he said.

"I miss Canada. It’s the safest place I ever lived."