Hundreds of American citizens are trapped in the besieged Gaza Strip under constant Israeli bombardment and have received no help in finding ways to escape, according to interviews with individuals on the ground.
The State Department says as many as 600 Americans are in the enclave that since Oct. 7 has come under heavy retaliatory airstrikes by Israel after the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which governs Gaza, launched a terror attack against southern Israel that killed at least 1,300 people.
The Israeli air campaign and full siege against Gaza which cut off electricity, food and water to the already blockaded territory has killed 3,785 people so far, according to Gaza’s health ministry.
“America’s not helping us, Biden’s not helping us, the embassy is not helping us,” Amir Kaoud, a Palestinian-American at the Rafah crossing with several of his family members, told NBC News.
The Rafah crossing is at the border of southern Gaza and Egypt, and is one of only two points of entry and exit for the Palestinian territory. The other point of entry is at Gaza’s northern border with Israel. Both are currently closed, and thousands of people are camped out at the southern crossing in the desperate hope of getting out.
Palestinians, some with foreign passports hoping to cross into Egypt and others waiting for 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, they’re trying to figure out a way to get us out. Nothing’s happening,” Kaoud said. “All the people, all the U.S. citizens in Israel, they’re getting out. Why not us?”
Americans in Gaza who contacted the State Department said that they were met with emails that detailed evacuation options for people in Israel, but little that was helpful for those stuck in the Palestinian territory.
Emilee Rauschenberger, a U.S. citizen who was visiting in-laws in Gaza with her husband and five children when the war began, said she felt that her government “kind of feels absolved of it as a responsibility because of the politics of it all.”
“The double standard is incredibly harsh,” she told NBC News.
The State Department has arranged evacuations by air and sea for U.S. citizens in Israel who want to evacuate. But it says that the situation is far more difficult for Gaza. “The armed conflict between Israel and Hamas is ongoing, making identifying departure options for U.S. citizens complex,” a State Department spokesperson told CNBC, adding that “the security environment in Gaza is distinct from the security environment in Israel.”
Smoke rises after Israeli airstrikes hit Rafah as the Israeli attacks continue on the thirteenth day of the clashes in Rafah, Gaza on October 19, 2023.
Abed Rahim Khatib | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
It also said: “We are providing the best information we have to allow U.S. citizens to make their own decisions regarding their safety and security in an incredibly difficult and fluid situation,” and that “we have informed U.S. citizens in Gaza with whom we are in contact that if they assess it to be safe, they may wish to move closer to the Rafah border crossing – there may be very little notice if the crossing opens and it may only open for a limited time.”
The Americans interviewed by NBC News, published on Monday, were frustrated by the advice, given that Israeli forces had bombed areas near the crossing, making moving toward it very dangerous if not impossible. Some said they were sent a “crisis intake form” by the U.S. Embassy in Egypt to fill out and submit, but that they were not contacted after that.
U.S. officials say they are working with the Egyptian authorities “round the clock” to get the Rafah crossing opened, but Egypt said in recent days that it had become inoperable due to Israeli airstrikes on the Gazan side.
Egyptian authorities say they won’t open the crossing without a guarantee from Israel that its humanitarian convoys, which have been waiting outside the border for days, won’t be attacked. Israel’s military said its strikes at Rafah were aimed at Hamas targets.
“There is an urgent need to alleviate the suffering of Palestinian civilians in Gaza,” Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said on Oct. 16.
Aid convoy trucks are seen at the Rafah border with Gaza on October 17, 2023 in North Sinai, Egypt.
Mahmoud Khaled | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Officials say a deal was reached Thursday to allow limited humanitarian aid into Gaza, but the details of when the crossing will actually open and what that would mean for foreign nationals in Gaza are still not clear. U.S officials said that the aid should be able to move into Gaza in the coming days.
Israel meanwhile has so far refused a temporary cease-fire unless Hamas releases the hostages that it kidnapped from Israel on Oct. 7. Israel’s government says Hamas has at least 200 hostages in captivity in tunnels underneath Gaza, including many children and elderly people.
Many of the Americans in Gaza have family members there that do not have U.S. citizenship. While they can apply for visas for their immediate family members, they would have to leave extended family members behind, creating an impossible situation, they say. They describe struggling to update their family members overseas due to weak signal and lack of electricity, and say they constantly hear the sounds of bombs and jets overhead, often having to suddenly relocate in the middle of the night.
Israel on Oct. 13 directed 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 U.N. described such a sudden displacement of so many people amid a war zone as “impossible without devastating humanitarian consequences.” Gaza, already one of the most densely-populated places on Earth, now has nearly its entire population trying to survive on half of its territory.
For the Americans trapped there, and their families overseas, announcements of developments at the border created false hopes. Various reports that the crossing would open at a specific day and time repeatedly turned out to be incorrect. As already-slim food supplies dwindle, the masses of people gathered at the border crossing only grow.
“We will continue to provide updates as we have them,” a line in the State Department’s message to Americans read. “We anticipate any opening will occur on short notice.”