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Irish-Palestinian man stuck in Rafah tells of fear of never seeing family again

Batoul Hania and Fatin Al Tamimi during a press event in Dublin in December for Palestinians living in Ireland who are calling on the Government to do more to secure the safe passage of their loved ones out of Gaza (David Young/PA)
Batoul Hania and Fatin Al Tamimi during a press event in Dublin in December for Palestinians living in Ireland who are calling on the Government to do more to secure the safe passage of their loved ones out of Gaza (David Young/PA)

An Irish-Palestinian man who was blocked from leaving the Gaza Strip has described his fear of never seeing his family again and how life in Rafah has become “critical”.

Zak Hania said he feels “abandoned” by the Irish authorities after appeals for help to leave Gaza went unanswered.

Mr Hania’s wife, Batoul, and their four sons were among the Irish citizens who left Gaza via the Rafah border last November and are now living in Dublin.

However, Mr Hania was not accepted on to the list of evacuees and was left in the besieged territory, where he fears for his life.

Mrs Hania and her four Irish-born sons, Mazen, Ismael, Ahmed and Nour, have spent months pleading for help from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), but have unable to get him clearance to leave.

“I think I am abandoned. I’m happy my kids left this terror and genocide and I urge everyone to help me and reunite me with my family,” Mr Hania told the PA news agency.

Mr Hania said life in Rafah is “very hard”.

“Last night we had the worst night since I have been here,” he said.

“We woke up at 1am to the sounds of missiles and bombardment and we were not sure what was happening. We thought the Israelis were invading Rafah. It’s so dark and there’s no electric. We don’t know where all the bombs are.

“We can’t go outside to see. It is very horrible and very hard at night. All people thought they were going to die because of the attacks.

“Around 100 people were killed last night and lots of people injured. They attacked houses and they attacked mosques.

Israel Palestinians
Palestinians survey the destruction after an Israeli strike on a residential building in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on Friday (Hatem Ali/PA)

“I see people moving from Rafah on cars and donkeys. They take their blankets and things. Rafah is so crowded. It’s full of people and it has become a tent city. Every empty space is filled with tents. Around 1.5 million people in Rafah. If they attack Rafah it will be terrible.

“The situation is very grim. We are exhausted. We have no energy and we are close to collapsing and don’t want to think that we have to move to another place because we have no energy to go anywhere.

“We don’t know where to go. We were told to go to Rafah as it is safe and now lots of people are here and we don’t know where to go.

“It’s very difficult and we are not sure what to do.”

Mr Hania said he does not know why he was blocked from leaving the Gaza Strip.

“The DFA said the relevant (Israeli) authorities refused me to leave but didn’t give a reason. I don’t know why but I know that travelling is a human right and I am held against my will and I consider myself to be a hostage in Gaza,” he added.

“I want to join my kids. Things are becoming critical here. I don’t know if I will be able to see my children again and be able to hug them.

“I want to join my family and don’t want to be separated from them. They are worried about me in Dublin. I was told by DFA to go to Rafah to leave and now I am stuck here. I have no place to go.”

His son, Mazen, described his family’s harrowing journey from their home in Beach Camp in northern Gaza through the Rafah border crossing and on to Dublin.

The 19-year-old, who was born in Dublin and moved to Gaza in 2012, was studying engineering at a local university when his home town was attacked by Israeli strikes.

APTOPIX Israel Palestinians
Palestinians fleeing the Israeli offensive on Khan Younis arrive in Rafah (Hatem Ali/PA)

Around 20 of his family members, including a three-month-old baby, left their home and travelled to a cousin’s house near the al-Shifa hospital.

“The bombardment became very intense. You have no idea what is happening – all you hear are the bombs,” he said.

“We were hoping the war would end and that we could get home again.

“It is very hard to survive there. During the day, we would go outside looking for food or flour to make bread or anything that we could eat to survive.

“Before we left we had three bags of flour – each weighing 25kgs – which were provided by UNRWA (The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees).

“It was so difficult carrying all the flour, as well as pillows and blankets. It was hell of a journey.

“Whoever was well enough in the morning looked for food. My role was to go and look for water.

“We had gallon-sized barrels and had to stand in long queues for three hours to get to the taps of water.”

Days later, the family were told to evacuate the building following a warning from the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).

Mazen found a cart and loaded it with all their belongings.

“We moved on to somewhere new. We tried to follow routines every day to keep us going. If we felt good and healthy in the morning we would fast during the day and eat only small things like one piece of bread,” he said.

“We only had one meal a day. There were 11 children in total with us.

“We sometimes had chicken but very rarely, sometimes we had cheese and olive oil and thyme.

“There was so much rubbish in the streets and we saw bodies too. Sometimes you couldn’t tell the difference between rubbish and bodies.”

Mazen’s most treasured items were his laptop, toothbrush and toothpaste, which he carried close to him for weeks.

The family walked for hours, despite his mother suffering from issues with her pelvic bones, while his father suffers from spinal issues.

“We went to another cousin’s house, who lives in Hamad City. We were lucky to have different houses to go to as there are so many people who sleep in the street. We found a car and used it to carry our belongings and people,” Mazen added.

“The worst journey we made was to the south of Gaza. I can’t believe it when I think about it.

“We got to a point where we saw the IDF and tanks and snipers.

“The IDF tank blocked the street and stopped us from going any further. We waited. The streets are not easy to walk. Roads are cracked up. A lot electric cables are in the way. It was the most intense hour of my life. We were all waiting for the tanks to move so we could get through.

“The IDF soldiers were calling and shouting at us. They would take some people away and we wouldn’t see them again.”

The Irish embassy contacted the family and told them to travel to Rafah. They were all on the clearance list, except Mr Hania.

“My dad was so angry and asked why this happened. He spoke to the Department of Foreign Affairs and we were told that the Israeli authorities had him on the red list,” Mazen said.

“My dad did his masters in journalism in DCU (Dublin City University), and he worked as a lecturer at the University of Palestine but his salary was not good. He resigned and worked as a translator and translates essays and reports.

“I don’t know why he is on the blacklist. Since October, he contacted press in Ireland, including RTE as well as Al Jazeera. He filmed himself talking about the situation and recorded some videos.

“They don’t want pictures in Gaza to go international.

“The last moments with him was so hard. We didn’t want to leave him. I didn’t know what to say or do.”

Describing the moment he left his father behind, Mazen wiped away tears as he recalled the difficult decision to leave.

“We all sat crying. My dad told us to go as it was the only chance to get our family out. He forced us to go.

“My dad told us to go to Ireland and do all we can to get him out and back with us.

“It didn’t seem real and I was 90% sure we would be back to him again but also thinking we might get out.”

After arriving in Rafah, the family headed to the border and boarded a bus to Cairo in Egypt.

“When we got to Cairo we stayed at a hotel for two nights. It was so weird. They put us in a five-star hotel. I remember walking into the room we couldn’t believe there was water coming out of taps and electricity – the transition to looking for water for hours to a five star hotel.”

Mazen, who is studying at University College Dublin, said he has not received updates from the DFA.

“We spoke to (Tanaiste) Micheal Martin and the DFA but we have had no updates. I feel they are not dealing with the issue,” he said.

“We have emailed and called for updates but nothing.

“We told him that he has full responsibility for my dad’s safety and God forbid if anything happens to him he will be held responsible.

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Mazen Hania said the family have spoken to Tanaiste Micheal Martin (Niall Carson/PA)

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs: “A small number of Irish citizens remain in Gaza.

“The Government, through our embassies in the region, has consistently sought clearance for all Irish citizens who wish to exit Gaza to do so.

“We continue to advocate with the authorities in relation to those who have not yet been permitted to leave.

“We are also ready to assist in instances where other Irish citizens and accompanying dependants wish to exit Gaza.

“As with all consular cases, the department does not comment on the detail of individual cases.”