American diplomats in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Amman led a coordinated evacuation of over 250 foreign nationals and 93 U.S. citizens from the Gaza Strip January 21-22, 2009. U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv coordinated the operation with diplomatic representatives from other countries, including Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Greece, Jordan, Norway, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Turkey. In the video above and text below, U.S. diplomats reflect on the experience.Mr. Andrew Parker, Consul General, American Embassy Tel Aviv: The U.S. Embassy was asked by the Israelis to take on the role of being the coordinator for this international evacuation. We began by contacting 25 countries that have nationals here who were interested in evacuating people. We brought them together at the Embassy and started a coordination group, and we have been providing daily updates as we have negotiated with COGAT (Israeli Border Authority responsible for controlling this Erez Crossing and other crossings in and out of Gaza) and with the others to try to arrange departure for their foreign nationals. So, they have been the key interlocutor for us as we try to arrange this departure.
Mr. Van Reidhead, Political Officer, American Embassy Tel Aviv: We worked throughout the last two weeks of the conflict to put it together and then we were finally, as the ceasefire came into place, able to coordinate with the other embassies, with our consulate in Jerusalem and with the Israeli authorities to bring out – I don’t recall the numbers – but a great deal of American and other third country nationals. We are very happy it worked out.
Mr. Jonathan Crawford, Vice Consul, Consulate General, Jerusalem: I have got 90 American citizens and their families. This is part of an international evacuation and coordination effort. Today, we have about 350 foreign nationals who are leaving. We have been working really hard for the past two weeks trying to organize the names, confirm citizenship, and then work out the logistics of bringing people out of what used to be a war zone.
Well, it was definitely a lot of coordination, but it was also a big team effort. This is the first time that we worked very closely with, of course, our Embassy in Tel Aviv, with our colleagues in Amman, and with our colleagues in Cairo. So, really there were four missions here – American missions working hard to make this happen.
Mr. Ruben Harutunian, Vice Consul, American Embassy Tel Aviv: Today was my first time working with the Consular Section in an evacuation and it was really an exciting time to be here to be helping the people, especially what was most gratifying was being a welcoming face, an open face for the people as they came through the border and just helping them with their bags and really to showing them where the bathrooms were, showing them where the sandwiches were, just really hanging out with them and being relaxed and showing them a welcoming face from both the United States and on as they prepare for their onward journey.
Ms. Kristin Roberts, Vice Consul, American Embassy Tel Aviv: We got here this morning and it was quite a day. Just a few days ago there was a war going on here and bombs were flying just over the hills back here. Having the kids come through - especially the kids is what hit me – you have got these families and kids were coming through on their baggage and on the bags, sitting on top and they are leaving their life behind: They are leaving their school, they are leaving their friends, they are leaving members of their family. They were scared. Their eyes were glazed over like coming through an airport after several hours but they don’t know where they are going. They know they are going to America but that is all they know.
So, actually, the best part of it today for me was providing a friendly face and playing with the kids. They dug through a suitcase of toys that people had donated and helping them choose their toys and learning a little bit of Arabic and talking to them in a little bit of English, and just kind of providing a way for them to go out and play and relax and be happy and it is actually very tense and scary for them. So, for me that was the best part of the day. A lot of logistics are being handled. A lot less people came today than we expected so there was a lot of time available to really spend time with the families. I’d never met any Palestinians families until today and for me, personally, getting to know these families and these kids was really the best part of – really put a human face on it for me and I hope I did the same for them.