Before dawn on Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem sent an email to Americans trapped in Gaza, suggesting they head for the border with Egypt and offering the prospect of escape.
It was hardly a promise, though. A weekend of diplomatic talks to open the Egyptian-Gazan border has so far yielded little but confusion, even at the embassy. Its email about the border opening did not cite talks with Egypt or Israel — it was based on news reports.
The lack of clarity was clear on the ground. Scores of people on Monday toted suitcases and garbage bags stuffed with what personal belongings they could carry to the only border crossing into Egypt, only to find the gates on the Gaza side closed and themselves stuck waiting on floundering diplomatic efforts.
“Are we never getting out of here???” Lena Beseiso, 57, an American stuck near the crossing, in the city of Rafah, wrote in a text message to a reporter. It was the second time in the past seven days that she and her family had gone to the border in hopes of escaping ahead of a threatened Israeli invasion of Gaza.
The confusion in Rafah was just one strand of the chaos that has engulfed Gaza since Israel imposed a total blockade and launched retaliatory airstrikes in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that killed more than 1,400 people in Israel.
The airstrikes have killed 2,750 people, the Palestinian Health Ministry said, and more than half a million Gazans have heeded Israeli warnings of an imminent invasion and fled their homes for the enclave’s south.
Israel cut off fuel deliveries last week, and there is no longer enough left to power Gaza’s only electricity plant. That, in turn, has shut down desalination plants, leaving the territory with dwindling water supplies.
Shops have been cleaned out of food and basic supplies. The United Nations said on Monday that Gaza was even running out of body bags.
Fadel Waheed, a software engineer, fled with his family from Gaza City in the north to the southern city of Khan Younis a few days ago. They could not find a place to stay, so he spends the night with two of his children in their parked car, while his two other children, his wife and his father sleep crammed into a 1,000-square-foot apartment with dozens of relatives.
Everyone is hungry. When Mr. Waheed, 33, managed to buy some noodles in a shop, he and has family had to eat them dry — there was no gas to boil water. The driver of a water truck let him take a few gulps from the tank through a spigot, but declined to sell him water. He has not changed his clothes in days.
“Money has no value,” Mr. Waheed said in a telephone interview. “There will be a big struggle over water and food and even medicines in two days.”
He added, “I am starved, humiliated, collapsed, oppressed and paralyzed.”
Mohamed Sharif, 42, who fled Gaza City for a friend’s house in the south, spent five hours looking for fuel to pump water into the tanks at his friend’s house. He did not find any.
“I will have to take another risk tomorrow,” he said in a phone call.
Though Israel is pushing what it calls a “complete siege” of Gaza since the Hamas attack, it has, along with Egypt, kept the enclave largely cut off since 2007. Egypt has taken part in the 16-year blockade of the territory in part because it fears an influx of Hamas militants and Palestinian refugees.
With Israel sealing its border with Gaza, Rafah is the only portal to let people out and relief supplies in, but Egypt has been reluctant to open the border for fear of getting sucked deeper into the current crisis. Last week, the United Nations said that Israeli airstrikes at or near the border post had made it impassable at times.
American pressure has had limited success so far. For days, U.S. officials said that Egypt had agreed to open the gate for Americans to get to their side of the border crossing; the State Department estimates that 500 to 600 U.S. citizens and permanent residents are trapped in Gaza.
The Egyptians said on Monday that they had agreed to nothing of the sort and that Israel had refused to allow aid in. And both Israel and Hamas on Monday dismissed reports of a cease-fire, humanitarian or otherwise.
Instead, the situation at the border remained “fluid and unpredictable,” as the U.S. Embassy put it in its email to Americans.
Abood Okal, a Palestinian American stuck in Gaza, received the email at 5 a.m. Monday and headed for the Rafah crossing with his wife and toddler son. When they arrived, they found the gates locked and border guards from the Hamas-run interior ministry in plainclothes informing people that the crossing was closed.
So he and other Palestinians with foreign passports waited, hoping it would open. The crowd was not huge, Mr. Okal, 36, said in an interview, but he recognized many people in it. They were fellow Americans he had seen at Rafah on Saturday, when Americans and dual citizens were previously told by U.S. officials that they could leave.
“You can see the familiar faces,” Mr. Okal said.
After spending hours at the border on Monday, he had to run off to secure medicine for his 18-month-old son, who had a fever, and to find drinking water.
Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a Palestinian political scientist who holds a U.S. green card, said American officials called him on Monday to tell him that the border could open at any moment and that he should be able to go on short notice. It could not come soon enough — his two sons, 29 and 27, both American citizens, were with him in Gaza, and scared.
“They don’t want to die under the rubble,” he said.
Mahmoud El-Deeb, a British citizen of Palestinian origin, said that his parents — also British and in their late 60s — were stuck in Gaza and had twice tried to cross the border. They were staying with 15 other families in a house in the southern part of the strip, Mr. El-Deeb said, and were out of the blood thinners and insulin they need for their medical conditions.
“Every call or text I get, I am expecting some kind of bad news,” said Mr. El-Deeb, 30, who lives in London.
“Whether it’s an airstrike or a ground invasion or their health, either one of them would take my parents away,” he added. “It’s like a ticking time bomb.”
On Monday, his parents also got a text by the British government relaying news reports that the border might be open. They, too, went to the crossing and found it closed. In the afternoon, Israel struck the crossing again, and his parents were evacuated.
“It’s just helplessness at this point,” he said.
Ms. Beseiso, who wondered if she would ever get out of Gaza, waited at the border for a while on Monday before heading back to the place where she had been staying.
“We had to return to the bombings and shattered windows and fear,” she said in a message.
Anna Betts, Sharon Otterman, Iyad Abuheweila contributed reporting.