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MANILA, Philippines – Two Filipino doctors – the first Filipino nationals to have made it out of the besieged Gaza strip – will be off to their new deployment as members of the nongovernmental organization Doctor Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF), the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said on Thursday, November 2.
“We salute them because that’s a very noble organization, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. They sent doctors, medical workers everywhere in the world,” said DFA Undersecretary Eduardo de Vega in an interview via video teleconference with reporters in Manila.
The two, whose identities the DFA did not disclose, will not return to the Philippines, but they have been in touch with their families back home. The two doctors were the first among the 136 Filipinos in Gaza to leave the besieged Palestinian territory following the eruption of hostilities in early October.
Hamas, a militant group that administers Gaza, launched a surprise attack against Israel on October 7, killing over 1,400 people. Tel Aviv has since mounted a relentless campaign against Hamas as a response to the surprise attack.
While Israel has said that it intends to eliminate Hamas, thousands of civilians – mostly young children – have been killed in airstrikes that have targeted even refugee camps.
Pleas for a ceasefire to make way for a humanitarian corridor – a window for people to flee and for aide to come in – have so far fallen on deaf ears.
On Wednesday, November 1, a Qatar-led negotiation between Egypt, Israel, and Hamas allowed the first batch of people to leave Gaza. Among those who were let through were members of international humanitarian organizations such as MSF, as well as gravely injured Palestinians.
Foreign nationals living in Gaza have also been let out, according to De Vega.
The ongoing war is just the latest in a long history of violence in the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Gaza, home to over 2.2 million Palestinians, has bore the brunt of the decades-old violence. While it is administered by Hamas, it’s Israel that controls what and who can enter or exit Gaza through blockades and sanctions.
It’s also Israel that has a say on who can exit Gaza in the staggered evacuation.
Slow process, return to Manila
The Philippines, through its embassies in Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, has long prepared for the exit of its nationals in Gaza.
De Vega explained that it is Israel who ultimately decides on who is let out. The Philippines has long submitted its nationals’ information, including the information of their Palestinian spouses.
Daily, Israel comes out with a list of around 500 people who would be allowed to exit Gaza.
Once a person on the list is able to exit through the Rafa crossing – the only way to leave the besieged Palestinian enclave – they head to the border, where Egyptian officials then process their entry.
“We are making the diplomatic representations…. I’d like to take this opportunity to remind our friends in both countries that Filipinos have done much for you as well. Filipinos are heroes in Israel – I hope they take this into consideration,” said De Vega.
The DFA official said one of the reasons for the delay in processing Filipino nationals’ exit from Gaza could be their names – most of the 136 are Filipino-Palestinians who have Arab names
“That might explain it. Baka iniisip ng mga Israelis, pinapatagal pa ‘yung clearance out of suspicion. Of course, they already say it: ayaw nila ng Hamas makalabas, ayaw naman ng Egypt makapasok. We guarantee them, mga citizens natin ‘yan. They are law-abiding,” said De Vega.
(Maybe the Israelis are taking time to process their clearance out of suspicion. Of course, Israel has already said that they do not want Hamas to make it out, and Egypt does not want them to get in.)
Over 115 Filipinos in Gaza have signified that they went to be repatriated to the Philippines.
There are only a handful – 19, including a Filipina nun from the Missionaries of Charity – who are either undecided about leaving or have, so far, decided to stay in Gaza despite bombardment from Israeli forces.
The Philippines is also preparing for its nationals, many of them Filipino-Palestinians, once they finally exit Gaza and come to the Philippines.
De Vega said President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had already instructed the Department of Migrant Workers and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, alongside the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos, to prepare for their return.
Aide might be prepared for them, but De Vega noted that their homecoming would be different from the overseas Filipino workers who fled Israel or Lebanon amid the war.
“They are permanent residents of Gaza. We cannot stop them from going back to Gaza when the situation clears. Eventually, uuwi ‘yan sa (we expect that they’d want to go back home to) Gaza,” explained De Vega.
Hundreds of OFWs in Lebanon are also seeking repatriation. So far, only 112 out of 162 have permission from their employers to leave.
Repatriation from Lebanon is optional for Filipinos after the DFA placed it under Alert Level 3. There are fears that the violence would spill over into nearby Lebanon, following fighting between Hezbollah and Israel.
From the West Bank, another Palestinian territory, four Filipinos want to return home. Two of them have managed to find their own way to neighboring Jordan. – Rappler.com