First Australians leave Israeli-besieged Gaza for Egypt

Palestinians with dual citizenship wait outside the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, in the hope of getting permission to leave Gaza

By Renju Jose

SYDNEY (Reuters) -Twenty Australians were among the first group of foreign citizens to leave the Israeli-besieged Gaza Strip and enter Eygpt via the Rafah border crossing, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs Tim Watts said on Thursday.

At least 320 foreign nationals left the Palestinian enclave to cross into Egypt on Wednesday, the first to benefit from a deal mediated by Qatar.

Watts said there were still 65 Australians trapped in Gaza and the government had urged them, using all available communication channels, to move toward the Rafah crossing as soon as possible.

"We are providing all possible support we can, communicating through all available channels," Watts told ABC television. "It is not always perfect. This is a conflict zone."

Watts said the government was not planning for more assisted flights at the moment as there were enough commercial options available. Since the conflict began on Oct. 7, the Australian government has conducted several repatriation flights.

Israel sent ground forces into Hamas-ruled Gaza late last week after weeks of air and artillery strikes to retaliate for a surprise Hamas attack in which Israel says 1,400 people, mostly civilians, were killed and 240 were taken hostage.

The Gaza health ministry says at least 8,796 Palestinians in the narrow coastal enclave, including 3,648 children, have been killed by Israeli strikes.

Watts said he also "strongly encouraged" Australians in Lebanon to leave the country after deadly clashes between Israel and the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group.

"We can't make any guarantees that Beirut airport will remain open if the conflict spreads to the south of Lebanon and departure options become much more complex and more difficult at that point," Watts said.

"We don't know what the situation is going to look like in the coming days and coming weeks."

Australia Foreign Minister Penny Wong on Thursday called for a pause in hostilities to allow supplies to enter Gaza, strongly criticising Hamas and calling on Israel to exercise restraint to minimise civilian casualties.

"Even in war there are rules," Wong told a news conference.

"The international community will not accept ongoing civilian deaths."

(Reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)