Mohammed Al Aoor has owned the Cambridge business for 15 yearsAmy Batley

Mohammed Al Aoor, owner of Rotana Cafe on Mill Road for the past 15 years and resident of South Cambridge, has been in Gaza since the 12th February and is now unable to leave because of border closures following the spread of the coronavirus.

Al Aoor travelled to Gaza to visit his terminally ill mother, who was told by doctors she only had weeks to live. He only intended to stay for three weeks. However, following the rapid spread of coronavirus in the region Hamas, Gaza’s governing authority, decided to close the strip’s borders.

Al Aoor initially travelled from the UK to Eygpt and entered Gaza via the Rafah crossing from Eygpt.

Al Aoor attempted to return to Cambridge with news of the escalating spread of coronavirus; he travelled to the Rafah crossing to re-enter Egypt in order to fly back from Cairo airport. He told Varsity that “unfortunately, all the passengers were returned back to Gaza and were told the border was closed because of Covid-19.”

The only possibility for Mr Al Aoor to leave Gaza now is through Israel, where he would be able to fly home from Tel Aviv airport. But foreign nationals require permission from the Israeli government to travel from Gaza into Israel and Israel only grants permission if a country’s embassy explicitly asks for it.

A Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) spokesperson told Cambridge News that they are in “contact with Mr Al Aoor, however the consular assistance we can provide in Gaza is limited.”

The FCO details on their website that the “Rafah border with Eygpt regularly closes with no warning and for long periods of time” cautioning that “at these times it may be impossible to enter or leave Gaza.”

A small number of exceptions have been allowed by Israel for foreign nationals to leave Gaza via the Erez crossing on humanitarian grounds but, this only applies to those who entered Gaza via Israel, not Eygpt, as Mr Al Aoor did.

However, Al Aoor contends that the purpose of his trip was for “urgent humanitarian reasons and anyone would de exactly the same if they were in my situation.”

Speaking to Varsity Al Aoor stressed that the “situation in Gaza is already very hard” yet he had “no choice” but to go and see his terminally ill mother, who he had not seen for eight years, otherwise, he would “regret it for the rest of my life.”

Al Aoor continued: “I am not here for holiday or luxury as Gaza is NOT a luxury holiday destination.”

Gaza has managed to limit the number of confirmed coronavirus cases by closing its borders with Eygpt and Israel. If someone arrives from abroad, Al Aoor told Varsity, they must Quarantine for 28 days.

However, with the first reported coronavirus death in the strip on May 23rd, there have been renewed fears of a devastating outbreak in the territory. Matthias Schmale, Gaza director of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, has warned that local hospitals do not have sufficient capacity to deal with coronavirus and there are not enough tests.

According to the director of the World Health Organization’s Gaza office, the strip has 62 ventilators but may need another 100 if the spread of the virus worsens. Ghada Majadleh, of Physicians for Human Rights Israel, is unsurprised by the minimal preparations for an outbreak in Gaza “considering the condition of the Palestinian healthcare system in general and in the strip in particular”.

Al Aoor feels he is “not really asking for much” in requesting the FCO to support his exit from Gaza. He only wants “the British embassy to get involved in getting me permission from the Israeli authorities to use the Israeli airport and fly back to my family, which is what has happened with other foreign citizens who were trapped in Gaza.”

Al Aoor told Varsity Canadians, Australians, Germans, Romanians and Americans had all been supported by their embassies in exiting Gaza and he feels he is simply asking for the same treatment from the FCO and embassy in Israel.

On Twitter, Al Aoor frequently attempts to attract support from Cambridge politicians, the FCO and media broadcasters. While Toleen, Al Aoor’s oldest daughter, has written letters to South Cambridgeshire MP Anthony Browne and Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner but with little avail.

Al Aoor has been in contact with his MP, Anthony Browne, “since the beginning” of his realisation that he was trapped in Gaza.


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In a statement, Browne told Varsity he has “deep sympathy” for Al Aoor’s family at this time and is “personally doing all I can to ensure he is safely repatriated.”

Browne has been “in ongoing contact with the Foreign Office for some weeks regarding Mr Al Aoor’s repatriation from Gaza, including personal representations to the Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa.”

Browne continued: “Having raised the wider concern with the Foreign Secretary in the Chamber and through assisting the cases of seventy other constituents who have been able to return from all over the world, I remain optimistic that a solution can be found despite the significant complexities of Mr Al Aoor’s situation.”

Al Aoor is still “waiting for any good news” from Browne as “up until now nothing has happened”.

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