By John Victor D. Ordoñez, Reporter

THE DEPARTMENT of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Sunday placed Gaza under Alert Level 4, forcing Filipinos to evacuate and come home amid the worsening conflict between Israeli forces and Hamas militants.

The Philippine government has accounted for 131 Filipinos in Gaza, with at least 78 of them waiting near the Rafah Border Crossing and looking to cross into Egypt, Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Eduardo Jose A. de Vega told BusinessWorld in a WhatsApp message on Sunday.

“All of the rest have left northern Gaza or Gaza City, which is expected to be the main site for hostilities,” he said. “The Philippine Government continues to work on the repatriation of our nationals and will provide updates on developments.”

Hamas militants backed by a barrage of rockets stormed from the blockaded Gaza Strip into nearby Israeli towns, killing dozens in a surprise attack on Oct. 7.

A stunned Israel launched airstrikes in Gaza, with its prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowing to inflict an “unprecedented price.”

“Mandatory does not mean that we will go to you and then drag you out,” Mr. De Vega separately told ABS-CBN News TeleRadyo in mixed English and Filipino. “But we are telling you to evacuate.”

“And if you are left behind then we can’t stop you, we cannot prevent it.”

At least three Filipinos have died in the crossfire, all of them caregivers. Three others were still missing.

On Wednesday, Philippine Ambassador to Israel Pedro R. Laylo, Jr. said at least two Filipinos died when Palestinian Islamists attacked at the weekend.

There was still no repatriation call for Filipinos in Israel, which was still under Alert Level 2, Mr. De Vega earlier said.

The Department of Migrant Workers last week said 313 Filipinos had marked themselves safe.

Deputy Chief of Mission of the Israeli Embassy to the Philippines Esty Buzgan told a virtual news briefing last week that there was no plan to lift the blockade in Gaza yet, citing concerns about more Hamas militants entering Israel.

About a third of the more than 30,000 Filipinos in Israel live in Tel Aviv, according to Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) chief Arnell A. Ignacio. 

A fifth live in the central district, 12% live in Israel’s third-largest city Haifa and 6.4% are from the northern district.

A tenth of the Filipinos live in the capital Jerusalem, while 5.3% live in the southern district, which is near Gaza.

Mr. Ignacio said 90% of Filipinos in Israel work as caregivers, 8% are permanent residents, 497 are student-interns and 19 are tourists.

Meanwhile, the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) urged the Philippine government to speed up the repatriation of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) caught in the war.

“We call on the government, spearheaded by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), DMW and Overseas Workers Welfare Administration to work triple time to operationalize a contingency plan with definitive timelines for the repatriation of our countrymen from Gaza and those in Israel who wish to return to the Philippines,” TUCP President and Party-list Rep. Raymond Democrito C. Mendoza said in a statement late Saturday.

“Safe passage and transportation are needed… should the conflict further escalate.”

Filipino hotel workers would still be deployed to Israel in the absence of a deployment ban, Migrant Workers officer-in-charge Hans Leo J. Cacdac said last week.

Mr. Cacdac told a news briefing on Thursday 22 OFWs in Israel were still awaiting approval for their repatriation, 19 of whom were caregivers and three hotel workers.