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Thousands of workers from Gaza are trapped in the West Bank and can't go home

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

It is now the fourth day of Israel's ground invasion into Gaza in response to the October 7 Hamas attack that killed 1,400 people in Israel. Fatalities in Gaza continue to grow. Israeli attacks there have now killed more than 8,000 people, according to Gaza's Ministry of Health. Shelters run by the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency, or UNRWA, are crowded with roughly 670,000 people - four times the number they're built to withstand.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Medical facilities are also operating at their limit. Dr. Fadel Naim has not left Al-Ahly Arab Hospital in Gaza since the war began. The telecoms blackout over the weekend left him and his colleagues unable to communicate with other hospitals or with their loved ones.

FADEL NAIM: They were one of the most difficult hours we have lived through in recent days.

SUMMERS: When phones started working again, Dr. Naim says his heart was filled with joy, as if the war had ended.

NAIM: Each of us started calling our loved ones to reassure that they are OK. And our hearts beat hard when the person we call didn't answer because we hadn't any connection, any communication with our people for two day long.

SUMMERS: Another group frantically searching for news during the blackout - thousands of workers from Gaza who had been in jobs in Israel and are now trapped in the West Bank and can't go home. NPR's Elissa Nadworny visited a military university in Jericho where hundreds are staying.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: At a university campus in the Palestinian city of Jericho, laundry hangs from the windows. Men lounge on mattresses pushed up against the wall, scrolling for news from Gaza. There are communal sinks...

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

NADWORNY: ...And an impromptu barbershop...

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRIC RAZOR BUZZING)

NADWORNY: ...Where you can get a shave and a trim if you join the wait list. It's a makeshift camp home to more than 400 workers from Gaza. They sleep in rooms filled with bunk beds. When we visit, they tell us...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic).

NADWORNY: ..."All we want is to go home to Gaza." These men are among the nearly 20,000 people from Gaza that had permits to work in Israel. Many of them work in restaurants or retail or as construction workers.

WALID: (Speaking Arabic).

NADWORNY: For the last year, Walid has worked in construction near Tel Aviv. He usually stays in an apartment there for two weeks at a time. We're not using his last name because he's afraid for his safety. After Hamas militants crossed into Israel and killed 1,400 people, Walid was among the workers from Gaza who are unable to return home.

And tell us a little bit about that day, October 7, for you. What was that like? What happened?

WALID: (Speaking Arabic).

NADWORNY: He says on the morning of October 7, his Jewish employer called him on the Sabbath, which he never does, and said, be careful. Don't leave your apartment. This war will be dangerous for you.

WALID: (Speaking Arabic).

NADWORNY: A few days later, Israel revoked work permits for people from Gaza.

WALID: (Speaking Arabic).

NADWORNY: So Walid stayed inside for a week. He didn't leave. He ran out of food.

WALID: (Speaking Arabic).

NADWORNY: His wife called him. She'd been worried about him being in Israel. Israeli authorities did detain thousands of workers from Gaza, some of them violently, according to an Israeli human rights group. Walid got a visit from police. He suspects a neighbor heard him speaking Arabic.

WALID: (Speaking Arabic).

NADWORNY: He didn't answer the door. He pretended to be asleep.

WALID: (Speaking Arabic).

NADWORNY: He says he was afraid and began to shiver. He worried about his children. His daughter wants to be a doctor. She's in her first year at university. The money he sends home from work in Israel helps pay for her tuition.

WALID: (Speaking Arabic).

NADWORNY: But the police went away, and then his employer called. Come down into the street. I'll wait for you there, he said.

WALID: (Speaking Arabic).

NADWORNY: Walid got into his employer's car and made it to the West Bank, which is under Israeli occupation but where the Palestinian Authority has some local control. That's where thousands of workers from Gaza have taken refuge. There are estimated to be about 1,500 here in Jericho.

IBRAHIM ALFARANY: (Speaking Arabic).

WALID: (Speaking Arabic).

ALFARANY: (Speaking Arabic).

NADWORNY: At the university, Walid has leaned on other workers to process all this loss - of their livelihood, some their family members, many their homes. Ibrahim Alfarany’s family survived Israeli airstrikes while seeking cover at a playground. He's from northern Gaza and had a permit to work in Israel at a store stocking vegetables. He told us through our producer, who interpreted, that there are no buildings left in his neighborhood.

ALFARANY: (Speaking Arabic).

SAWSAN KHALIFE, BYLINE: He had a video, but it disturbed him too much that he deleted it. He didn't want to see it anymore. It was too disturbing for him to see it. So he deleted it.

NADWORNY: You were just watching it over and over again.

ALFARANY: (Speaking Arabic).

KHALIFE: He watched four or five times, and then he was like, I'm going to delete it. And he deleted it.

ALFARANY: (Through interpreter) My mental state of mind is destroyed. I'm in a very bad place right now.

NADWORNY: Alfarany has nearly two dozen nieces and nephews, and he gets overwhelmed thinking about all those children going through this trauma right now. Israeli bombardments have killed more than 8,000 people in Gaza.

What's her name?

ALFARANY: Layan.

NADWORNY: Layan.

ALFARANY: Layan Razan.

NADWORNY: Alfarany scrolls through his phone looking at photos of his two young daughters. They help him forget all the bad things that have happened in these last three weeks.

ALFARANY: (Through interpreter) My brother is missing, who also is a worker.

NADWORNY: His brother, who works in the north of Israel in a town called Nahariya, has been missing for 20 days.

ALFARANY: (Speaking Arabic).

NADWORNY: Alfarany last talked to him at 11:30 a.m. the day after the attack by Hamas. He hasn't heard from him since. The other workers staying with his brother told him the Israeli military came and detained him. According to human rights groups, thousands of workers have since gone missing and are thought to have been arrested by Israeli police. In the courtyard of the university, Basel Zrain tells us even though he and the other men are safe here, they'd rather be home in Gaza.

BASEL ZRAIN: I am feeling in my house. But my heart, my mind not here.

NADWORNY: His wife and five children are staying in Al-Shifa hospital, where the U.N. estimates some 50,000 people are seeking refuge from Israeli airstrikes. He relishes every text message, every call, even if they are chilling.

ZRAIN: My son - his name Ali. I am speak with him. Ali, how do you do? How are you? How do you find - Baba, I am OK. I am. But do you know what I do? I told him, what do you do? Baba, I am write my name in my hand now.

NADWORNY: He writes his name on his arm.

ZRAIN: Why? I told him, why? Maybe I am killed. I want to be known - (speaking Arabic).

NADWORNY: I want them to know who I am...

ZRAIN: Yeah.

NADWORNY: ...When I die.

ZRAIN: Yeah. It's a problem for him.

NADWORNY: What does it feel like for you...

ZRAIN: Yeah.

NADWORNY: ...On the other side of that phone call to hear that but to be here?

ZRAIN: No, I want to be - to go to Gaza.

NADWORNY: Yeah.

ZRAIN: If you can, to put me your baggage - if you can, I want to die with my children. I am father, but now my children without father.

NADWORNY: For 48 hours this weekend, Zrain didn't hear from his family. Nearly everyone in Gaza was without a cell or internet connection. But then earlier today, he finally got them on the phone. And for now, everyone is OK. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, in the city of Jericho in the West Bank.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elissa Nadworny
Elissa Nadworny is an NPR Correspondent, covering higher education.
Samantha Balaban
Samantha Balaban is a producer at Weekend Edition.
Sawsan Khalife