US changes policy to aid families of Americans trapped in Gaza

The State Department is expanding the assistance it is providing to US citizens trying to escape Gaza to include their parents and siblings, The Independent has learned.

The US had previously only committed to helping citizens and their “immediate family” to escape the territory, which it narrowly defined as their “spouses and their minor children only”. That left many Americans facing the agonising choice of leaving other family members behind or remaining in a warzone with them.

But a State Department spokesperson told The Independent that as of 9 November, “we have expanded our assistance to include parents of U.S. citizens [...] and siblings of U.S. citizens where both are unmarried and under 21.”

The change comes after The Independent repeatedly questioned the White House and State Department on its previous policy. In one response, on 7 November, the State Department said that it was “assisting the immediate family members of U.S. — their spouses and minor children only. We aren’t able to assist extended family members of U.S. citizens.”

That distinction is a matter of life and death to many US citizens and their families, many of whom have been stuck in limbo waiting to leave the war-ravaged territory while under relentless bombardment by Israeli forces. Some have even been forced to leave family behind.

The evacuation process for US citizens is the result of complex negotiations between the US, Israel, Egypt and Qatar, which acted as a mediator with Hamas. Americans must submit their names to the embassy in Jerusalem, which then passes it on to the other parties for approval. They must then check a Facebook page maintained by the Palestinian Authority every day to see if their names have made the approved list to cross the border. That approval process is murky and bureaucratic, leaving many US citizens in the dark about when, if and how they will be able to leave Gaza.

One 19-year-old Palestinian-American woman, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Independent that she had been desperately trying to contact US embassies across the region for weeks asking for help evacuating her family. As the only person in her family with an American passport, she faced the prospect of leaving her parents and three younger siblings behind.

Despite the State Department’s announcement, the policy change has not yet made an impact on the ground. As of Monday, the 19-year-old US citizen’s name had been added to the list of evacuees, but her parents and siblings had not.

That experience has been repeated for many other Palestinian-American families trying to escape the war in Gaza, during which Israeli forces have killed more than 11,000 Palestinians, including more than 4,500 children.

Israel Palestinians (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Israel Palestinians (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

One American mother found that her name had been added to the evacuation list, but her two daughters, also American citizens, had not. They remain trapped in Gaza as of Monday, according to a family member reached by The Independent.

The State Department spokesperson reiterated to The Independent that the US does not control the Rafah border crossing into Egypt and that the list is determined by a “series of negotiations and discussions about process, procedure, and security vetting.”

“The situation remains fluid, and there have been delays and periodic, unexpected closures. Nonetheless, we expect exits to continue, and we will not stop working to get U.S. citizens and their immediate family members out as safely as possible,” the spokesperson added.

Israel launched its war in Gaza in response to a deadly massacre of some 1,200 people by Hamas on 7 October and imposed a total siege on the territory, blocking aid deliveries of food and medicine, in addition to cutting water and electricity to the 2.3 million who call it home.

But even before this war, Israel imposed a punishing blockade on Gaza for 16 years, with the cooperation of Egypt. Palestinians wishing to leave Gaza via Egypt must register with Palestinian authorities two to four weeks in advance ‚ the United Nations says the procedures and decision “lack transparency.” For Palestinians to leave Gaza via Israel, including to reach the West Bank, they must obtain an Israeli-issued exit permit. Only people belonging to certain categories can leave, among them day labourers, traders, patients and their accompaniers, and aid workers.

Israel says the blockade, which was imposed when Hamas took control of Gaza, is necessary to prevent arms shipments from reaching militants in the territory, but Palestinians and rights groups describe it as collective punishment.