By Eleisha Foon of RNZ.co.nz and is republished with permission
A New Zealand-based church group is attempting to flee Israel by bus with the help of the Tongan Consulate hours before the area they are sheltering in within Tel Aviv goes into lockdown.
The Tongan church group is made up of 45 people – mostly New Zealand citizens over the age of 40 and a 26-year-old woman.
RNZ Pacific spoke to a friend of the group who said this was “a crisis” and called on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to provide a safe evacuation.
The friend who wished to stay anonymous to protect the group’s safety said: “If the NZ consul can’t get them out within the next 12 hours, a lockdown will imprison them in Israel for an indeterminate period.”
The concerned friend said a member of the group is battling cancer and is in need of medication.
The group was evacuated and are sheltering at a hotel 20 minutes away from where rockets are being launched.
RNZ Pacific was told by the friend: “The fear, uncertainty, and danger they face is beyond imagination.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade were made aware of the group’s situation three days ago, and the group was told to register to their website online and “wait on an update and response”. They are still waiting to hear from MFAT.
Meanwhile, the group were able to contact the Tongan government which has stepped up to help.
A member of the Tonga Consulate would be guiding the team out of Israel but there are concerns about a lack of funds to fly the entire church group back to New Zealand.
The friend of the church group discussed setting a Givealittle online crowdfunding page if NZ cannot come to the group’s aid.
“They have had to confide in the Tongan Consul, and had plans to fly out today but all commercial flights have been canceled until the 23rd of October.”
MFAT responded in a statement with advice to people attempting to flee the conflict by telling people to “use commercial opportunities to depart” Israel and “to register on SafeTravel for the most up to date information”.
Up to 54 members of the Connection City Church Assemblies of God travelled to Israel for a Holy Land tour, visiting historical Christian sites last week.
Meanwhile, members who were part of the same church cohort as the NZ Tongan church group arrived back in Fiji early this morning from Tel Aviv, Israel after the island nation sent a repatriation flight for hundreds of its citizens including Fijian government officials.
There are 245 New Zealanders registered on SafeTravel as being in Israel and 13 New Zealanders registered as being in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, according to MFAT.
An MFAT spokesperson said anyone that wants to leave Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territories but can’t, should contact the New Zealand 24/7 Consular Emergency Line on +64 99 20 20 20.