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Trapped in Gaza, Palestinian Americans Say They Feel Abandoned

Duaa Abufares, 24, a psychology student from Clifton, N.J., has been anxiously awaiting word from her father, Fares, each day this week. He had gone back to Gaza to visit relatives in early September.

Now, Mr. Abufares, who is a U.S. citizen, is sheltering with relatives amid the sounds of nonstop bombing, and calling his five children back in New Jersey during brief periods when he can access electricity. During a video call with them on Thursday, Mr. Abufares, 50, described seeing the bodies of dozens of women and children killed in an airstrike blocks from his family home.

“In a second, maybe it’s going to be me and my family,” he said, his voice breaking.

Duaa Abufares, left, and Ahmed Abufares have been trying to stay in touch with their father, Fares, in Gaza.Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

The sudden Hamas attack on Saturday and the subsequent counteroffensive left American citizens stranded in both Israel and Gaza. To assist American citizens who want to leave Israel amid the spiraling security crisis, the Biden administration announced it would begin arranging charter flights to ferry Americans to destinations in Europe starting on Friday.

But for American citizens stuck in Gaza, there is no such arrangement, at least not yet. Many said American officials had asked them to fill out forms and wait. But without knowing when they will be able to come home, they said they were scared and wondering if bombings or crossfire would get to them first.

On Friday, the Israel Defense Forces said civilians in the northern part of Gaza should evacuate to the south, “for their own safety and protection.”

“I feel like I’ve been abandoned by my country,” said Lena Beseiso,57, who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, and is caught in Gaza with her husband, two of her daughters and a 10-year-old grandson. “We’re American citizens and we’re not being treated as American citizens.”

John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that Israel’s blockade was for now preventing the American government from transporting its citizens out of Gaza. He said that the White House was in talks with Israel and Egypt about the safe passage of civilians out of Gaza, including Americans, but that no breakthrough had been reached.

“Right now, they — they can’t leave. So, we would have no physical means of permitting that transit out,” Mr. Kirby said during a press briefing on Thursday. “And so, that’s why we’re so actively having conversations with the Israelis and the Egyptians about a safe passage corridor so that people who want to leave can leave.”

U.S. officials estimated that 500 to 600 American citizens were in Gaza.

For now, there is nothing to do but wait and hope and pray. Ms. Beseiso and her family, who are in Gaza visiting relatives, tried to flee on Tuesday, she said, but the Israeli military bombed the Rafah crossing to Egypt while they were there, shuttering it. The family was told to return to Gaza for safety, and Ms. Beseiso is now sheltering in a building with her 87-year-old mother-in-law. The family has no water or electricity, she said.

Lena Beseiso and her family had been visiting Gaza and now are unable to escape after a border crossing to Egypt was bombed.Credit…via Lena Beseiso

On Tuesday and Wednesday, there were nonstop airstrikes and bombs around the building, causing the windows in their apartment to shatter and their front door to break open because of the pressure of the bombs, she said. She said she had reached out multiple times to U.S. authorities and the U.S. Embassy in Israel but that she had not received a clear answer about what was being done to help them.

“Sometimes I have the hope and faith that I will make it out alive,” she said on Thursday. “But then once the darkness hits, and the airstrikes get heavier,” she said, she starts to wonder, “is it our turn tonight?”

On Friday, she said her family had moved south after the directive from the Israel Defense Forces. “We found a family that let us in,” she wrote in a text message, adding, “This is so very scary!”

More than 170,000 people in the United States identified as having Palestinian heritage in the 2020 census, a number that is considered to be a significant undercount by many within the Palestinian community given longstanding challenges in tallying the number of Americans of Middle Eastern and North African descent.

Palestinian Americans in the United States were already worried and have been frustrated by statements in recent days from government officials, universities and employers that expressed solidarity and sympathy for Israeli loss of life but did not mention Palestinian civilian casualties.

Families desperate for their government to step in and help stuck loved ones say the lack of attention has been devastating. More than 1,500 people, including 500 children, have died in Gaza, according to the Gazan Health Ministry.

Iman Museitef, 31, said her parents, American citizens who live in Newark, N.J., were trapped in Gaza City, where they went in late September to visit her 85-year-old grandmother.

“They ask me every time I hear their voice, ‘Did you call the embassy? What did they say?’” she said. “It is always something dreadful to have to explain to them that the place they have lived for half of their lives is not really helping them.”

Her parents tried to cross to Egypt on Tuesday, she said, but were unable to leave when the border crossing was shut down. They are now moving from apartment to apartment as evacuation orders are given.

“We are trying our best to contact the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and Cairo, and all they are all telling us is that we don’t have information on when the border is going to open,” Ms. Museitef, a registered nurse in Milwaukee, said. Maybe, she said of the U.S. State Department, “that’s not what they care about right now.”

She said she and her siblings had filled out forms and were waiting. “My parents are over 60 and they’re really scared. I just want their safety and I want them to come back to us,” she said.

Abdulla Okal and his wife, Haneen Okal, Palestinian American citizens who live in New Jersey, went to Gaza with their children over the summer, because Ms. Okal wanted to be near her family while giving birth to their third child, he said on Thursday. Mr. Okal flew back to New Jersey to help speed the process of getting an American passport for the baby so they could travel home. But then war broke out.

Abdulla Okal and his family. His wife is trapped in Gaza with their children. They have been moving from place to place to avoid bombing.Credit…via Abdulla Okal

Ms. Okal and her three children were at the border Tuesday when it was bombed. The neighborhood where they were staying was also bombed. Now they have moved into her sister’s apartment, Mr. Okal said.

At the moment, Mr. Okal said his wife and children had lost power and that she was trying to conserve her phone battery. “All I ask her is just text me, tell me you’re still alive,” he said. His 3-year-old daughter is very scared, and has been running a fever, he said. When his 8-week-old son sleeps during the bombings, the child shakes.

Mr. Okal said that he heard from some American authorities on Thursday that they were trying to devise a plan to get U.S. citizens home safely. His wife told him early Friday that she was evacuating south after the directive from Israel, but he did not know where they would stay and he had not heard from her since.

He said he was planning to fly to Egypt, in hopes that he can pick up his family at the border when and if they can cross.

“Just treat us like we’re American,” he said. “We’re American citizens, we pay taxes, we are good citizens, it’s our country too,” he said. “I just want the government to treat us equally and care more, a little bit more.”

Duaa Abufares wanted to try to help her father leave, but even if there were a way, Mr. Abufares has told his children he does not want to abandon his mother and other relatives as the violence seems poised to escalate.

Rania Mustafa, executive director of the Palestinian American Community Center in Clifton, N.J., said she had been frantic all week, fielding requests from people with relatives in Gaza and staying in touch with her own contacts. The scariest moments came when people went dark, and it was unclear whether they were without electricity or if something terrible had happened.

She is worried about what Israel may do next.

“God only knows what’s going to happen,” she said.

Jenna Russell contributed reporting.

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