Israel Allows 300 People to Leave Gaza

Departees were mostly foreigners married to Gazans, and their children

Three hundred Gaza residents left Gaza on Friday morning on their way to the Allenby Bridge. The embassies that spent several days working with the Israeli government to secure their exit call them evacuees, but escapees is more accurate.

Most hold foreign passports, and were the foreign-born wives of Gazans, and their children.

Several children said their friends did not know they had left.

"How could we tell them? No one goes out, there's no electricity and no Internet, the phones don't work," a 15-year-old boy said. His sister admitted she was ashamed to tell her friends she was leaving, while a 17-year-old boy said his friends who know envy him. Most of the children simply stared silently, while the youngest cried and called for their fathers. Most of the fathers stayed behind, because they don't have foreign passports.

The word "terminal" is misleading, implying a border crossing between Israel and a country called Gaza. But Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, like those in the West Bank, are all recorded in the Interior Ministry's Population Registry. If they aren't registered in Israel's computer system, then they don't exist. So the "border" terminal separates people who are all registered with one country's interior ministry.

On the Israeli side, the word "terminal" fits the glass-walled building, with its passport control and luggage carts. On the Gazan side it's different - like the end of a giant, well-guarded detention camp.

"It's like Leningrad during the siege," Svetlana said, describing the past week in Gaza. "No electricity, no cooking gas. Everyone gets 20 pitas. The food shortage is very obvious. But the main thing is the fear. The children want to play outside, it's impossible to keep them inside constantly. Every time they run outside, your heart sinks."

Most of those who left Gaza Friday were citizens of Russia, Ukraine and other nations in the former Soviet Union, mainly women who met Gazans studying in their countries, and their children. There were also six Norwegians and seven Turks, as well as 16 American citizens and 11 of their lucky relatives without U.S. citizenship.

All of the embassies or consulates sent representatives to receive their citizens, but only the Americans - a security officer and three or four officials - prevented journalists from speaking freely with their citizens crossing over. One young woman spoke to the cameras and microphones outside.

The spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem, Michaela Schweitzer-Blum, said in response to a question from Haaretz that the prohibition was aimed at "protecting the privacy of the American citizens" and making things easier for them.

Lilia has two children, and is nine months pregnant. She has lived in Gaza for seven years. "My husband is a doctor, he's always at the hospital and even there, there is no protection. There haven't been any windows in the operating rooms for a long time now. Everything just went. We took down all the windows, the cold is preferable to having windows smashing on us."

Galina's husband had wanted her to stay.

"Until last night I thought we'd stay but then a neighboring house was shelled. All our windows broke, the children were screaming. I realized I couldn't take it any longer. After six days with no sleep, all I want to do is to sleep and to wake up knowing there aren't any planes flying above me. I have no reason to be ashamed of leaving. Thank God we had the opportunity."