Hopes are raised for University of Utah graduate stuck in Gaza as the Rafah border crossing opens

Nov 2, 2023, 7:30 AM | Updated: Nov 30, 2023, 5:33 pm

Palestinians walk away from the kibbutz of Kfar Azza, Israel, near the fence with the Gaza strip on...

Palestinians walk away from the kibbutz of Kfar Azza, Israel, near the fence with the Gaza strip on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. The militant Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip carried out an unprecedented, multi-front attack on Israel at daybreak Saturday, firing thousands of rockets as dozens of Hamas fighters infiltrated the heavily fortified border in several locations by air, land, and sea and catching the country off-guard on a major holiday. (AP Photo/Hassan Eslaiah)

(AP Photo/Hassan Eslaiah)

SALT LAKE CITY — Abood Okal’s voice is 10 times clearer coming through the phone this time around. 

Family, duty and war: Three Utahns and their civilian fight in Gaza

“I’m recording this voicemail at 4:50 p.m. local time,” Okal says. 

Okal is sitting by a blown-out window in a house 10 minutes from the Rafah border crossing. He is replying to a list of questions he’s been sent via text.     

“We continue to struggle with drinking water. Just like many people in Gaza, it’s become the biggest issue here,” he responds.  

“We were able to secure a gallon for all 40 members in the family that are sheltering together, so we are trying to be cognitive about portions,” Okal said. “Make sure that everyone is hydrated, especially the young ones.”  

Okal, his wife, Wafa, and their toddler, Yousef, are still trapped in Gaza on the southern border. They are American citizens.  

“We’re staying in Rafah city with my sister and her three children who are also Americans.” 

Okal says there was an announcement Halloween night that the Rafah border crossing would open today.  

“You can only imagine how happy we were, we were extremely hopeful and cheerful last night despite all the bombing around us,” he explained.  

“We finally see a glimpse of hope for leaving the warzone and saving our lives basically.”  

Border opens in southern Gaza 

Okal’s hopes were dashed this time though.  

“As the night kind of went on, we realized that basically, Americans wouldn’t be able to leave today,” Okla said.

At this stage, there are confirmed reports that five Americans have been able to cross from Gaza to Egypt. It is believed there could be upwards of 400 American citizens and passport holders trapped in the war-torn area. 

“We received a notification from the State Department just past midnight to keep an eye on the next couple of days for further instructions about the specific day and time that Americans would be allowed to cross through Rafah into Egypt.” 

A deal was mediated by Qatar between Egypt, Israel and Hamas to allow limited evacuations from Gaza to Egypt.  

Egypt controls the Rafah border crossing in Southern Gaza and when it opened up today wounded people were the first to cross over. 

According to Al Jazeera correspondents, at least 450 people will pass through the border in the coming days.

Battles in the North 

Israeli Defense Force Spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari gave an update on the ground forces currently in Gaza this morning.  

“In northern Gaza, during the night, significant battles took place, one of which was conducted surrounding a multi-story building,” he explained.  

“Terrorists shot at our forces- this building, like many locations, Hamas terrorists use as shelter, is a civilian structure located in close proximity to a school, medical center and government offices,” Rear Admiral Hagari said. “IDF soldiers directed aircraft to strike the threat, eliminating the terrorists.”  

In the last 48 hours, a refugee camp was bombed in airstrikes.  

Rear Admiral Hagari says during the strike a high-ranking Hamas commander was killed with “dozens of terrorists around him.”

In the statement, Rear Admiral Hagari explained Commander Ibrahim Biari was killed in a building inside the Jabaliya Camp — which is the largest of the refugee camps Gaza Strip.  

According to the IDF, Biari was a “dominant leader of their military activity” during the war in Gaza.  

In a post to X, the United Nations expressed concerns that the air strikes from Israel “are disproportionate attacks that could amount to war crimes.”  

Rear Admiral Hagari admitted in his statement the strike caused “the collapse of underground military infrastructure, including terror tunnels under the camp which further caused the collapse of additional structures.” 

He said Hamas were using civilians as a ‘human shield’, civilians whom “we have called upon to evacuate for their own safety”.  

It’s unclear exactly how many civilians were killed in this particular strike. However, according to data collated from Al Jazeera, since 1,405 Israelis and 8,924 Palestinians have been killed since Oct. 7.

Prayers for home 

On the southern border of Gaza in Rafah city, Okal says he can hear the fighting happening only miles away but has hope that he and his family’s days left in the war zone are numbered.  

“We hope our turn will come into and among those that are leaving, and we trust that our State Department is doing its best to get us out of Gaza before it’s too late.”  

We want to hear from you.

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Hopes are raised for University of Utah graduate stuck in Gaza as the Rafah border crossing opens