It took four failed attempts before Suzan Beseiso was able to get through the Rafah crossing into Egypt and escape the bombardment of the Gaza Strip.
On each occasion, the 31-year-old Palestinian American, one of several hundred foreign passport holders allowed to leave the enclave since last week, said she faced acute danger.
“Every single time we went to the border, we got bombed and freaked out,” she said on Sunday during an interview in Cairo, where she arrived after crossing the Sinai Peninsula by road. “Bombs are going left and right.”
After Israel imposed a total siege on Gaza in retaliation for an October 7 incursion by Hamas, the Rafah crossing – the only crossing out of Gaza that does not border Israel – remained out of operation for nearly two weeks amid diplomatic wrangling over conditions for allowing aid to enter and evacuees to leave.
Since then a trickle of relief has been trucked into Gaza and some evacuees have left, though the arrangement is fragile and was suspended on Saturday before resuming on Monday.
The month-long war has caused a deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza as Israel’s military campaign has intensified, with many of the territory’s 2.3 million inhabitants repeatedly displaced as they struggle to find shelter and safety.
Beseiso, who has spent about half her life in Gaza and half in the U.S., said she had crammed with relatives into a single room in a stranger’s house, ran short of food and water, and endured sleepless nights during air strikes.
“It’s just a horror movie that keeps putting on repeat,” she said. “No sleep. No food. No water. You keep evacuating from one place to another.”
On one occasion, she was in a resting-area next to the border with her sister and cousin and panicked when she heard a strike fall near where her mother, father and nephew were waiting outside.
They narrowly escaped, she said, but the Palestinians received an order to shut the border and the family retreated in a terrifying taxi ride back into Gaza.
“On our way to the house, gunships were bombing the beach area, and the bombs were just flying on top of our heads, left and right, and the airplanes were just bombing as well.”
Eventually, the first foreigners and some Palestinians requiring urgent medical treatment were allowed to start leaving Gaza on Nov. 1, after negotiations involving the United States, Israel, Qatar and Egypt.
Egypt has strongly resisted suggestions of any mass displacement from Gaza into Sinai, partly due to Arab fears of a new wave of permanent displacement echoing what Palestinians mourn as the Nakba or “catastrophe” in which they fled or were forced from their homes in the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation.
Beseiso was fortunate to be among the first batches cleared to leave out of a total of some 7,000 foreign passport holders expected to depart. But she felt torn, not wanting to relive the pain of separation that her grandmother, now 89, had experienced when she was displaced from her hometown of Jaffa 75 years ago.
“It’s like you die or you leave,” she said. “What do you choose between? Your childhood memories, your home, your land, or being alive.”
When the family left their house in Gaza, her grandmother started shouting that she didn’t want to go, and Beseiso had to plead with her.
On the road through Sinai, she said her grandmother looked suspiciously at the newly built housing, asking the driver what it was for and declaring that she would only stay in Egypt for one month then return home.
That anguish was shared by others, some of whom had to leave loved ones behind.
Another Palestinian-American, Jana Timraz, 19, crossed to Egypt with her sister and 3-month-old son, but only after pleading with border officials late into the evening because her son’s name was not originally on the pre-approved list.
Her husband, parents, and brothers, who do not hold U.S. citizenship, could not get through.
“I am here in Egypt, but my heart is broken over my family, and my husband who I left behind,” she said after arriving in Cairo.
Yusra Batniji, 78, moved from northern to southern Gaza as the bombardment intensified, staying in a house with 30 people before heading to the border with her husband Youssef, who was struggling with a series of medical conditions.
Born in Gaza but also holding U.S. citizenship, she acquired some land next to her house in 2005 where she grew olive, lemon and palm trees.
“Before leaving my home I prayed to God that I would come back to this house, even if it is just dust,” she said after arriving in Cairo.
“I hope people go to my house and take the dates and olives, so they don’t go to waste.”