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The US State Department Has Failed to Protect US Citizens Escaping From Gaza

Palestinian Americans in Gaza have had little support from the U.S. government as they desperately attempt to evacuate.

People fleeing from the Gaza Strip wait in the Egyptian part of the Rafah border crossing with the Palestinian enclave, on December 3, 2023.

This story was orginally published at Prism.

Sireen Beseiso traveled to Gaza in June 2022 with her 11-year-old son Aden for summer break. The single Palestinian-American mother from Salt Lake City, Utah, was planning to stay for just two months to visit family but ultimately decided to extend their stay and enroll Aden in the American International School in Gaza City because he enjoyed living there.

While in Gaza, both of their passports expired. Beseiso had planned to go to the American Embassy in Jerusalem months before the expiration was up but told Prism that Israel never issued a permit for them to cross the border to attend their appointments.

“I used to email the American Embassy in Jerusalem, and it was very stressful. And I was freaking out. I wanted to go back home,” Beseiso said. “And then we got stuck in the war.”

Sixteen months after arriving in Gaza, Beseiso and Aden became one of the more than 1,200 people with ties to the U.S.—including citizens, permanent residents, and their families—who were stuck in the besieged territory and trying to make their way back home.

Since Hamas’ attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, resulting from 16 years of Israel’s violent, illegal blockade of Gaza and the mass imprisonment of Palestinians, the Israeli military has unleashed more than 100,000 artillery shells and mass starvation conditions on the highly dense strip, killing more than 21,731, according to Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, almost half children, as of Dec. 6. According to U.S. officials, more than 1,100 U.S. citizens and family members were able to leave Gaza as of Dec. 8. On Oct.16, the State Department partnered with a Royal Caribbean International cruise ship and evacuated more than 150 Israeli U.S. nationals and their immediate families. The State Department also offered more than 5,000 seats on chartered flights boarding from Tel Aviv. Beseiso said 63 of her family members and 48 friends have been killed in the current bombardment.

“When war started, Aden started to tell me, ‘They’re gonna kill us all. I’m gonna die,’” Beseiso said. “Because we didn’t have food sometimes, he used to tell me, ‘Oh, I’m hungry. I’m gonna go try to sleep [and] pray now. I’m gonna eat in heaven.’”

When Israel’s assault on the besieged Gaza Strip began, Beseiso said she and her mother, who is also a U.S. citizen, called the U.S. Embassy multiple times, pleading with them to help her family evacuate. The State Department didn’t respond until weeks later.

“They were like, ‘We can’t help you because you’re in Gaza. We only help people from Israel,’” Beseiso said. “And I’m like, ‘What’s the difference? We have American citizenship. What’s the difference if we’re located in Gaza or Israel? What’s the difference?’ And they couldn’t help us. We called so many times. And they didn’t help us. We had to wait till 27 days in the war in Gaza for the American Embassy to let us out.”

Prism contacted the State Department for comment but did not hear back by the time of publication.

As instructed by Israel, Beseiso, Aden, and several other members of her family moved south but still experienced constant bombardment in the southern region. On Oct. 29, as Israel began its ground invasion, they plunged Gaza into a communications blackout, cutting all internet and phone lines. Beseiso said this was a particularly fearful time for them.

Beseiso and her family went to the Rafah crossing a total of five times, even under threat of Israel’s bombing. On Nov. 2, they were finally able to evacuate to Egypt. Beseiso and her son are still working out passport details and are anxiously waiting until they can arrive back home in the U.S. Her parents have safely returned to Salt Lake City, but the people of Gaza, many of Beseiso’s friends and family, are still faced with the terror of Israel’s attacks.

“We have to stop this genocide as soon as possible,” Beseiso said. “We need a ceasefire as soon as possible. Because a lot of innocent people are dying.”

Getting Americans out of Gaza

Palestinian Americans living in Gaza have faced very different experiences from Israeli Americans in accessing support by the U.S. State Department to reenter the country. Israel’s constant bombardment of Egypt’s Rafah Crossing (the only gateway to leave Gaza that is not directly controlled by Israel) and its ongoing siege on humanitarian supplies coming into the region have made it impossible for Americans to leave the strip. According to UN data, between January and July of this year, the crossing has only been open for 138 days out of 212 days.

The Rafah Crossing officially opened on Nov. 1, allowing a small number of foreign nationals and injured Palestinians to leave Gaza after 26 days of constant bombardment on the strip.

In early October, the Arab American Civil Rights League (ACRL) and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) created a call to action and a dedicated hotline to assist U.S. citizens who were trapped in Gaza. Ghassan Shamieh, a Bay Area-based immigration attorney, is one of the assisting attorneys in partnership ACRL and ADC who filed several lawsuits against the U.S. State Department and Department of Defense to ensure the safe evacuation of Palestinian American citizens. In the lawsuit, both organizations “accuse the US government of unconstitutionally discriminating against Palestinian Americans by not securing their safety and well-being.”

“After Oct. 7, people were scrambling to try to get their families evacuated out of Gaza. And it was quickly realized by these families of U.S. citizens that there was no coordinated effort by the U.S. government to get these people out,” Shamieh said.

According to Shamieh, the State Department intended to bring U.S. citizens from Gaza onto chartered flights from Tel Aviv, but because of Israel’s tight control on the borders, no one from Gaza can make it to Tel Aviv; the only possible route is through the Rafah Crossing in Egypt.

Shamieh, together with the ACRL and ADC, identified citizens in Gaza and filed lawsuits against the State Department to pressure the government to bring them home.

“Shortly after filing one of the lawsuits, my client, an 81-year-old woman, was put on the list to be evacuated,” Shamieh said. “And we think the lawsuits nationally combined have put pressure on the government to force them to take a second look at this. Once our clients do make it into Egypt, these lawsuits are dropped or withdrawn because at that point our goal has been accomplished.”

Shamieh also shared that their clients who safely evacuated Gaza have also experienced additional interrogation and detention at the airport.

“It’s happening to those people who have ties to an Arab or Muslim country. Green card holders or visas [are being targeted], but it’s [also] happening to U.S. citizens. And they’re being held for hours on end, phones being searched. Now, legally, the Border Patrol has the right to do this. But we are calling out the disparate treatment and discrimination that’s coming along with this,” said Shamieh.

This is reminiscent of former President Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban in 2017, an executive order that banned travelers from Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., which was eventually overturned.

“It’s a terrifying time to be an Arab and Muslim in the U.S. right now,” Shamieh said. “You have politicians threatening to revoke citizenship of U.S. citizens. And you have presidential candidates going on debate saying that anybody who’s Palestinian or supports Palestine is going to have their student visas revoked, and they’re going to be sent back to their country, no questions asked. That is in complete contravention to what the legal process is for immigrants; you don’t just revoke a visa and send somebody back to their home country, [it] doesn’t work that way. There’s a process.”

Two of Shamieh’s elderly clients chose to remain in Egypt temporarily to physically and emotionally recover from the compounding trauma they experienced in Gaza. Meanwhile, state officials who are following procedure to interrogate these citizens without recognizing the trauma that a genocidal campaign brings to those who have experienced it are potentially causing more harm to these travelers.

According to Shamieh, there currently isn’t an established process to evacuate those with visas and green cards, although ACRL and a separate group of attorneys are currently working on a strategy to get family members of U.S. citizens out of Gaza.

For those who have friends or family members in Gaza, please contact Ghassan Shamieh at (415) 777-0700 or at ghassan@shamiehlawsf.com, or you can contact ACRL’s dedicated hotline at 1(888) 806-3822.

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