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Loay Elbasyouni "gave up hope many times" that his parents would escape Gaza City. Here's how he saved them.

IDF raids main hospital in southern Gaza
Israeli forces raid southern Gaza's main hospital 06:25

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears set to defy warnings from the United States and many other countries and organizations by ordering his forces to move into the southern Gaza city of Rafah. More than 1.5 million Palestinians — many of them displaced multiple times already during four months of war between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers — have crammed into Rafah, on Israel's orders.

But not all of Gaza's civilians fled to the south. Some of them simply couldn't. 

Mohammed and Alia Elbasyouni stayed in Gaza City, the biggest metropolis in the Palestinian territory, during four months of bombardment despite the Israel Defense Forces' order to evacuate.  

They stayed put, they told CBS News, because they were too elderly to leave on foot with the thousands of others who sought safety in southern Gaza.

The couple's son Loay is a U.S. citizen who lives in Los Angeles and helped design a robotic helicopter for NASA that was used on a Mars mission. He said his parents were among the last five civilians stuck in the old center of Gaza City, and being so far away, with them trapped in a warzone, was torture.

"They had almost no food. They had no water. My mom wasn't drinking and trying to save water for my dad," he told us. "My dad had a heart condition. There was nobody to help him. He couldn't breathe. My mom thought he was dying."

Israel orders evacuation of southern Gaza hospital 01:35

"Death was every moment," Alia told CBS News. "We were living in stress and indescribable fear. Shelling 24 hours a day over our heads. Scared, and we couldn't do anything, and you hear screaming all the time."

Loay was convinced that his parents would never make it out of the decimated Gaza Strip, but the electrical engineer didn't stop looking for an escape route.

"I started working on it after the third day of the war," he said, "speaking to probably hundreds of people, trying a lot of avenues, you know, and like, almost every single avenue failed."

He said it was made far more complicated by the fact that his parents cannot walk on their own, "so I had to figure out a way to send an ambulance to them, to pick them up from Gaza City and get them to Rafah."

"I gave up hope many times," he admitted, but he said every day he would wake up and think, "let me try one more avenue."

Eventually his tireless efforts paid off, and with help from Turkish authorities, Loay arranged for his parents to be ferried out of Gaza City in an ambulance convoy to make the roughly 20-mile journey south to Rafah — the only place in Gaza with a border crossing that's been open at all since the war started.

On a first attempt, the family said the convoy came under fire.

"It was an ambulance convoy of the three ambulances and a bus," Loay said. His parents were in the second or the third ambulance, and after they were collected by the Palestinian Red Crescent team, "they were attacked."

It was never clear who opened fire, but Loay's parents said one medic was killed and at least two other people injured. With no other option, however, they tried again, and the second time they made it to Rafah. His parents crossed the border into Egypt, and then Loay was finally reunited with them in Turkey, where they all spoke with CBS News.

Mohammed, Loay and Alia Elbasyouni speak with CBS News after being reunited in Turkey, in mid-February 2024.  CBS News

Alia said being back together with her son was "indescribable — but I am sad for our people. We are happy, but also not happy because we left our families without even seeing them — our family, friends, our country is in total ruin."

Now, with the threat of a looming Israeli ground assault like the one they escaped from in Gaza City, the elderly couple worry about those friends and family they left behind in Rafah.

If there is an invasion, Mohammed told CBS News, "a large number of civilians will die. A large number will be wounded."

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