Hundreds of American citizens are trapped in the besieged Gaza Strip under constant Israeli bombardment and have received no help finding ways to escape, according to interviews with people on the ground.
The State Department says about 600 Americans are in the enclave, which has been under heavy Israeli retaliatory airstrikes since Oct. 7 after the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza, launched a terror attack in southern Israel that killed at least 1,300 people.
The Israeli air campaign and total siege against Gaza that has cut off electricity, food and water to the already blockaded area has killed 3,785 people so far, according to Gaza’s health ministry.
“America is not helping us, Biden is not helping us, the embassy is not helping us,” Amir Kaoud, a Palestinian-American at the Rafah crossing with several of his family members. he told NBC News.
The Rafah crossing is located on the border of southern Gaza and Egypt and is one of only two entry and exit points for Palestinian territory. The other entry point is at Gaza’s northern border with Israel. Both are currently closed and thousands of people have camped out on the south pass in the desperate hope of getting out.
Palestinians, some with foreign passports hoping to cross into Egypt and others awaiting aid, wait at the Rafah crossing in the southern Gaza Strip on October 16, 2023.
Mohammed Abed | Afp | Getty Images
“They keep saying the same thing every day, trying to find a way to get us out. Nothing is happening,” Kaoud said. “The whole world, all the US citizens in Israel, are leaving. Why not us?”
Americans in Gaza who contacted the State Department said they were met with emails detailing evacuation options for people in Israel, but little help for those stuck in Palestinian territory.
Emilee Rauschenberger, an American citizen who was visiting her in-laws in Gaza with her husband and five children when the war began, said she felt her government “feels kind of absolved of responsibility because of the politics of it all.”
“The double standard is unbelievably harsh,” he told NBC News.
The State Department has arranged for air and sea evacuations of US citizens in Israel who wish to evacuate. But he says the situation is much more difficult for Gaza. “The armed conflict between Israel and Hamas is ongoing, making it difficult for US citizens to identify exit options,” a State Department spokesman told CNBC, adding that “the security environment in Gaza is different from the security environment in Israel.” .
Smoke rises after Israeli airstrikes in Rafah, as Israeli attacks continue on the thirteenth day of clashes in Rafah, Gaza on October 19, 2023.
Abed Rahim Khatib | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
He also said: “We are providing the best information we have to allow US citizens to make their own decisions about their safety and security in an incredibly difficult and fluid situation” and that “we have briefed US citizens in Gaza who we are in touch with that if they deem it safe, they may wish to approach the Rafah border crossing – there may be very little notice if the crossing opens and it may only be open for a limited time.’
The Americans were interviewed by NBC News, published on Monday, were disappointed by the advice, given that Israeli forces had shelled areas near the crossing, making movement towards it very dangerous if not impossible. Some said they were sent a “crisis recruitment form” from the US Embassy in Egypt to fill out and submit, but were not contacted after that.
US officials say they are working with Egyptian authorities “around the clock” to open the Rafah crossing, but Egypt has said in recent days that it is not working because of Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza side.
Egyptian authorities say they will not open the crossing without a guarantee from Israel that its humanitarian convoys, which have been waiting outside the border for days, will not be attacked. The Israeli military said its strikes in Rafah were aimed at Hamas targets.
“There is an urgent need to relieve the pain of Palestinian citizens in Gaza,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said on October 16.
Aid convoy trucks are seen at the Rafah border with Gaza on October 17, 2023 in North Sinai, Egypt.
Mahmoud Khaled | News Getty Images | Getty Images
Officials say an agreement was reached Thursday to allow it limited humanitarian aid to Gaza; but the details of when the crossing will actually open and what that would mean for foreign nationals in Gaza are still unclear. US officials said aid could be flown into Gaza in the coming days.
Meanwhile, Israel has so far refused a temporary ceasefire unless Hamas releases the hostages it kidnapped from Israel on October 7. Israel’s government says Hamas is holding at least 200 hostages in tunnels under Gaza, including many children and the elderly.
Many of the Americans in Gaza have family members there who do not have American citizenship. While they can apply for visas for their immediate family members, they will have to leave extended family members behind, creating an impossible situation, they say. They describe having difficulty informing their family members abroad because of a weak signal and lack of electricity, and say they constantly hear the sounds of bombs and jets overhead, often being forced to move suddenly in the middle of the night.
Israel on October 13 ordered the 1.1 million residents of northern Gaza to move to the southern half of the territory ahead of an expected ground invasion, the start of which has not yet been announced. The UN described such a sudden displacement of so many people into a war zone as “impossible without catastrophic humanitarian consequences”. Gaza, already one of the most densely populated places on Earth, now has almost its entire population trying to survive in half of its territory.
For Americans stranded there and their families abroad, announcements of border developments have created false hope. Various reports that the crossing would open on a specific day and time have repeatedly been proven wrong. As already meager food supplies dwindle, the masses of people congregating at the border crossing only grow.
“We will continue to provide updates as we have them,” read one line in the State Department’s message to Americans. “We expect any opening to happen in a short period of time.”
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