PH reaches out to Filipinos trapped in Gaza

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A plume of smoke is seen over central Gaza Strip, after an airstrike by Israeli forces, as seen from the Israel Gaza border, Monday, November 19, 2012. Israeli aircraft struck crowded areas in the Gaza Strip and killed a senior militant with a missile strike on a media center Monday, driving up the Palestinian death toll to 96, as Israel broadened its targets in the 6-day-old offensive meant to quell Hamas rocket fire on Israel. AP/Lefteris Pitarakis

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia–President Benigno Aquino III on Monday said efforts were underway to reach Filipinos in the Gaza Strip, caught in the middle of bombings and air strikes between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic militant group ruling that area.

In a briefing for Manila-based reporters, Aquino, who was attending the 21st Asean Summit, said there were conflicting reports as to how many Filipinos were living in Gaza.

“In Gaza, the numbers are conflicting. [The Filipino population] ranges from about 119 to 121, I am told. Our embassy in Israel tells us that… only one [Filipino] is working in Gaza. The rest are married to Palestinians living in the Gaza strip,” he said.

Two rapid response teams have been sent to Egypt and Israel to assist in the possible evacuation of the Filipinos and their Palestinian spouses from Gaza, the Department of Foreign Affairs said.

The Philippine embassies in Egypt and Israel, which border the Gaza Strip, have identified possible exit points in coordination with authorities in the area, according to the DFA.

Aquino said the situation was becoming more alarming in Gaza strip, where dozens have died in a week of fighting.

“In Gaza, they are scared. There was a Filipino living near an area supposedly attacked by Israel and he said they are scared. But they are unanimous in not wanting to be repatriated,” he said.

He noted that this was the same situation in Libya when Filipinos refused to be evacuated even as the violence escalated.

On the other hand, some 41,000 Filipinos in Israel, most of them caregivers, Aquino said. But he said the government did not see any immediate need to repatriate them.

“The people in Israel will normally have access to bomb shelters,” he said. “We don’t think that we will have to evacuate 41,000. But we just want to be prepared.”

“We’d rather bring all of the 41,000 home but they will have disrupted jobs, etcetera. We will be impinging on their right to travel, etcetera. There are also limits to how we can implement forced evacuation,” he said.

Hamas, regarded as a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel, seized control of Gaza in 2007 after winning a general election. Israel withdrew from the strip in 2005 but maintained a blockade around it.

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