As Israeli jets pounded the Gaza Strip last month in response to Palestinian rocket fire, Ukrainian diplomats in Kyiv, Jerusalem and Ramallah were toiling feverishly to organize an exodus from the Hamas-run coastal enclave.
By May 26, less than a week after the two warring sides had agreed to a cease-fire, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba proudly tweeted that Kyiv had “successfully evacuated 109 Ukrainian, 13 Moldovan, 4 Bulgarian citizens” who were in Cairo at that time, awaiting a flight to Ukraine.
“Ukraine is among the first to successfully complete an international humanitarian mission by evacuating citizens of three countries from Gaza,” he bragged. “We never abandon our citizens & we help [our] partners. Grateful to Egypt & the entire Ukrainian diplomatic team for successful cooperation.”
But while the Ukrainian citizens airlifted home celebrated the rescue, others have complained to Haaretz of being excluded by a confused and ad hoc process that took too long and left them stranded in war-torn territory far from home.
“The thing is, they didn’t evacuate everyone,” Elena Hamida, a Ukrainian from Poltava who moved to Gaza in 2005, told Haaretz.
“I have already been in Ukraine for three months, since February. I didn’t evacuate, I was already here before then, but learned there would be an evacuation just a day before the evacuation. My children remained there [in Gaza]. I wanted them to come. Well, no one told my children. No one told my husband. The evacuation turned into a total mess,” Hamida complained.
The Gaza Strip is home to a small Russian-speaking expatriate community, primarily composed of women from Central and Eastern Europe who met and married Palestinian men, who had gone to study in their home countries – a practice that began during the Soviet era. Estimates vary but some claim the community numbers as many as 800 or more.
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“The bombing was everywhere,” recalled Abbad, a Palestinian man with Ukrainian citizenship who was among the evacuees, and spoke to Haaretz on condition that his real name not be published. “We applied to the consul. I personally applied to the consul in Ramallah and asked him to do something.”
“Something needed to be done, because we had nothing to do with it [the fighting]. Our women were living in fear – we never experienced such a war before. It was really the strongest war up until now – they used such rockets that a building of 15 floors suddenly disappeared. It’s of course very scary,” he said. “We started to get in touch with friends who live in Ukraine. We wanted to tell everybody about the Ukrainian diaspora in Gaza – who we actually are.”
After the hostilities broke out on May 11, politicians in Ukraine began discussing an evacuation from the Strip, finally deciding to move forward just on May 19, according to Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk.
In an exclusive interview with Haaretz, Korniychuk described the preparations and the negotiations behind the airlift, including what he said were efforts to make sure that nobody connected to Hamas was evacuated from Gaza.
“We had to be careful about this because the Israelis are all concerned about those citizens having dual passports or [being] spouses of Hamas [members]. We gave them all the names and lists, including women, children and the small number of males, and there were no problems from the Israeli authorities. It was all cleared from the Israeli side,” the ambassador explained.
"The absolute majority of those people were women and minors. There were just a few men,” he said, adding that Kyiv had sought to “limit the number of men as much as possible.”
Logistically, Korniychuk continued, "we had a substantial amount of people registered with the consular section so it was easy to identify them” – but because Ukraine does not have any diplomatic personnel posted in the Strip, the actual work of publicizing the effort and signing of evacuees fell on leaders of “the community in Gaza” itself.
Once the decision to proceed was made, preparations for the airlift took several days, the ambassador said. While 200 Ukrainian citizens initially signed up to be evacuated, only about half that number were still interested when the operation actually took place, after the end of the fighting.
According to an Israeli official who spoke with Haaretz on condition of anonymity, Kyiv initially wanted to evacuate its citizens via the Israeli-controlled Erez checkpoint “during the fighting, but it was closed because it was under fire by Hamas.”
Thus the Ukrainian authorities eventually decided to reroute the departing group through the Rafah crossing, on the Egyptian-Gaza border. On the morning of Tuesday, May 25, four days after the cease-fire went into effect, five buses departed Gaza City on a nearly day-long journey to Cairo.
The Israeli official explained that the Ukrainians had “asked us for names because they wanted to get them out through Erez,” but once they decided to use the Rafah crossing, Jerusalem no longer had anything to do with the operation.
“On the Egyptian side, we were welcomed well,” Abbad recalled. “After we finished with the passports, we got on the buses, but the [security] situation didn’t allow us to move toward Cairo. We had to spend the night in the buses.” (There is currently a nightly curfew in northern Sinai, where Egyptian government forces are battling Islamist militants.)
The following day, the buses arrived in Cairo, where, according to a Facebook post by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba, the evacuees found that their plane had experienced a “breakdown,” delaying their arrival in Kyiv until Thursday, May 27, at 3:30 A.M.
“I wanted, of course, to do it even faster, but the situation on the ground was constantly changing and required patience,” Kuleba wrote. “And even with this in mind, Ukraine was one of the first to conduct a successful international humanitarian operation, taking citizens of three countries from the Gaza Strip.”
It is not surprising that the foreign minister did not mention a parallel evacuation conducted by the Kremlin on the same day, in which 64 Russian citizens fleeing Gaza were evacuated to Moscow via Cairo. Tensions between Moscow and Kyiv have been high since 2014, when Ukraine forces began battling a Russian-backed insurgency in the eastern part of their country.
While Abbad was extremely happy to return to Ukraine, he claimed that there are still some 120 Ukrainians left behind in Gaza, who have been unable to access consular services and lacked the documentation necessary to be airlifted out last month.
“Why do the Israeli authorities treat us as Palestinians? Why aren’t we allowed to go to the West? Why? Please, it is not our fault. In order to get our documents in order, we need to get away and we cannot do it because Gaza is a closed zone,” Abbad complained, adding that a number of people were turned back at the Rafah crossing because they did not have the necessary identification papers.
Elena Hamida, who is still separated from her Palestinian husband and children in Gaza, agreed, telling Haaretz that while she believed the Ukrainian authorities had handled their part of the operation well, “the volunteers who gathered the lists [of names] didn’t do their job fully.”
“The fact that they evacuated people is good, but it was carried out [badly]. Some people managed to get on these lists, some people didn’t. They forgot to include some people, some people were removed,” she said.
“The only problem we have is that in Gaza we don’t have a branch of the embassy. We would really like the embassy to give us a diplomatic division so we could solve our problems with documents. Because from this closed-off zone, we can’t go to Ramallah, we can’t simply go to Egypt to fix our expired documents or make birth certificates for our children,” she said.
“When we needed some documents, we called the embassy in Egypt and they said: 'It doesn’t relate to us, call [the Ukraine embassy] in Israel.' When we call Israel, they say to call the consulate in Ramallah. They say: 'You know, it’s closed off, we can’t get to you, you can’t get to us, it’s very difficult, we will try.' In short, they try to convince that they will solve our problem, but they are dealing with it for a really long time and we have a lot of children who have neither citizenship, nor birth certificates. Passports are valid for 10 or 15 years.”
“The consul of Ukraine in Palestine never comes to Gaza,” said Yousef Abumatar, a 44-year old Palestinian with Russian citizenship, who is married to a Ukrainian woman. “To be honest, our family has a big grudge against Ukrainians for their attitude, unfortunately, toward their diaspora and their citizens in the Gaza Strip.”
In a statement to Haaretz, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry declared that its diplomats had “worked closely with both Egyptian and Israeli sides in order to coordinate on security, logistical and other organizational matters,” and that “significant efforts have been undertaken by the Representative Office of the Embassy of Ukraine in the State of Israel to the Palestinian National Authority,” in order to “identify Ukrainian citizens who requested assistance and form evacuation lists.
“As of now," the statement went on, "all Ukrainian citizens who requested the government of Ukraine to be evacuated have left Gaza. Almost all of them women and children. At this time Ukraine does not plan another stage of evacuation. Further decisions will be taken based on the security and humanitarian situation on the ground.”
Asked about the plight of Ukrainian citizens who were unable to obtain the necessary documentation in order to leave Gaza, Ambassador Korniychuk seemed apologetic, insisting that Kyiv’s hands were tied.
“For us as diplomats, unfortunately, we cannot produce miracles," he said. If a person doesn’t have passport, or someone’s children can't be properly identified – “we don’t know if they qualify,” he added.
Said Hamida, speaking from Ukraine, “The girls are, of course, angry that there won’t be a second evacuation. In any case, I will soon go to Gaza. Even if there will be a war, I will go there before the war. I will be with my children, with my family. If it is destined that we die, then at least [we] all [die] together.”