As Israel escalates its offensive in Gaza, U.S. officials are privately telling some Americans trapped in the region that the government lacks key pieces of information involving ongoing diplomatic negotiations and when it will be safe to exit. In one case, U.S. officials resorted to asking private citizens to use their own influence to improve the situation.
HuffPost reviewed emails and text messages between Biden administration staffers and an American family and their attorney. The communications suggest there is confusion among personnel working on the sensitive issue — a life-or-death matter for the estimated 600 Americans currently in Gaza.
On Oct. 21, the Okal family made their third attempt to leave Gaza through the territory’s southern border with Egypt at an exit point known as the Rafah crossing.
By that point, Abood Okal, his wife, Wafaa Abuzayda, and their 1-year-old son Yousef had spent more than a week sheltering among a group of 40 people at a single-family home 10 minutes away from the crossing. They fled there after Israeli authorities ordered Gazan civilians to flee the north on Oct. 13.
“We’ve been in touch with the State Department since day 1 of the war…nothing has happened,” Okal said, saying rounds of airstrikes made it impossible for the family to sleep at night. His son has become more attached to his parents — unable to be without one of them at all times — and has taken to waking up screaming in the middle of the night from what his parents suspect are nightmares, Okal added.
The day they tried the Rafah crossing for the third time, they received multiple State Department emails and messages saying they should try to do so. Rafah did not open for people to cross that day. Sammy Nabulsi, the Okals’ lawyer, pressed his government contacts on why that was the case.
“If someone knows from leadership they aren’t telling us,” a State Department official who had been sending minute-by-minute directions to the Okals wrote back to Nabulsi via text.
In another email chain about the Okals’ predicament, a White House official called the situation “incredibly complex” and said the U.S. was “working all of our channels” to convince local authorities to allow people through Rafah. “If you have connections that can influence in that regard I urge you to also send these messages to them,” the White House official continued.
A third official suggested to Nabulsi that the U.S. had not adequately prepared before sending the alert to American citizens in Gaza.
“I have encouraged Consular Affairs not to issue any additional statements advising of opportunities to cross Rafah until we have a clear ‘yes’ from all three actors,” the State Department official wrote in an email, referring to a State Department bureau and the authorities in Egypt, Israel and Gaza. “[We’re] very close to agreement with two of the three. And we are working the third very hard.”
In an interview with HuffPost on Monday, Nabulsi blasted the Biden administration.
“I just can’t understand how the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing at any given time,” he said. “Both the secretary [of state] and the president are clearly prioritizing military aid to a foreign government, the destruction of a foreign territory and frankly the killing of foreign civilians over the safety of American citizens.”
As an American citizen, it should not matter which side of the wall they’re on.Sammy Nabulsi, lawyer for the Okal family, U.S. citizens trapped in Gaza
Nabulsi drew a contrast with the support provided to Americans who were in Israel after the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched a brutal shock attack in the country on Oct. 7. The U.S. government arranged more than 5,000 seats on specially chartered planes and ships to evacuate American citizens from Israel and the occupied West Bank.
“As an American citizen, it should not matter which side of the wall they’re on,” Nabulsi said.
Conducting such an evacuation from Gaza would be extremely complex amid active fighting, but many aid agencies and some elected officials have said the U.S. could push the warring parties to have a humanitarian ceasefire there.
White House spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Egypt has largely kept the Rafah crossing closed this month, citing repeated Israeli airstrikes on the area. Three aid convoys have passed through in recent days, though individuals are still unable to cross. Meanwhile, Israel has expanded its operation in Gaza, which the country says is aimed at wiping out Hamas and allied militants. On Oct. 23, Israeli airstrikes intensified, including on southern Gaza near Rafah, where Israeli officials had previously suggested Gazan civilians should flee for shelter.
The latest round of strikes killed 436 people, the majority of them in the south, according to Gaza’s Hamas-controlled health ministry. In total, the current uptick in violence has killed more than 5,000 Palestinians so far, the health ministry says. More than 1,400 Israelis have also died since Oct. 7, according to the Israeli government.
President Joe Biden’s dominant focus on supporting Israel and his opaque policy-making process in regard to the conflict have spurred frustration across his administration, particularly at the State Department, officials have previously told HuffPost.
A U.S. official said government personnel tracking the Gaza situation worry they will end up “giving people false hope” because of Biden’s approach.
“Nobody on our side feels they have any power… Israel has control of this situation,” said the official, who sought anonymity to speak candidly.
The Okal family has now reached an alarming deadline, Abood Okal said in a Monday recording shared with HuffPost. They have run out of milk for their son and have been unable to find more in local shops. Israel has cut off water and power supplies for Gaza and tightly limited the provisions that go in from elsewhere; the recent aid convoys through Rafah carry only a fraction of what Gaza previously imported daily, according to the United Nations.
“While we’ve been preparing for this day, trying to wean him off it, we haven’t been able to do it because it soothes him and it helps him fall asleep — as well as being his main source of nutrition, as well as his comfort food,” Okal said. “So we don’t know what we’ll do next.”
“As much as we try to shield him from this mess and this war, his basic instinct of fear still picks up on the life-threatening situation we’re in,” he said, adding that the latest round of Israeli airstrikes caused “a pretty rough night” as the house they were staying in frequently shook from the impact.
Okal’s sister Haneen and her three children, including a baby, are also with the group. They are all U.S. citizens as well.
Okal is focused on fleeing soon and is “hopeful” despite his three failed efforts to do so.
“While we’re sad for the people that we would leave behind — the loved ones, the friends, all the civilians of Gaza — we at least have a chance to save our son,” he said.
Nabulsi plans to continue pressuring U.S. officials to provide safe passage for the group and other Americans. And he says they deserve more guarantees from the Biden administration as they await details on a possible departure plan.
He shared emails in which he asked officials to push Israel to agree not to target areas in Gaza where U.S. citizens are located. On Monday, Israel agreed to pause airstrikes on a section of southern Gaza so the International Committee of the Red Cross could help two hostages held by Hamas leave the strip.
“They’ve never responded to me on that point,” Nabulsi said. “If you aren’t going to get them out, you need to protect them — Hamas is not going to protect the American citizens.”