Even with recent evacuations of Americans in Gaza, a coalition of attorneys tell Scripps News Palestinian Americans face hardship and unequal treatment
"We're the voice for the voiceless," says Mariam Charara, executive director of the Arab American Civil Rights League."We're the voice of the voiceless and we're going to continue to put up this fight."
A coalition of attorneys across the U.S., including Charara in Michigan, are fighting to bring Americans back from Gaza. They are suing the U.S. State Department and the Defense Department, accusing them of failing to uphold a constitutional obligation to safely evacuate Americans. The State Department says more than 400 have been evacuated so far. But a month into the war, an unknown number of Americans are still trapped.
"The attorneys have all agreed that this effort will not stop until all U.S. citizens are evacuated from the Gaza Strip safely," said immigration attorney Ghassan Shamieh.
The California-based lawyer says there has been progress: An 81-year-old woman he represents managed to evacuate last week after visiting her childhood home for the first time in 30 years. He has since dropped his lawsuit.
But both attorneys tell Scripps News that Americans still in Gaza are facing unimaginable choices: "A mother was not put on a list, but two of her children were. One that is [an] eight months year old, and another one that is two years," says Charara. "The State Department is putting families in a position to choose," said Shamieh. "Do I separate myself from my children to ensure that they are safe? Or do I remain unified together and wait until all of us are on that list so that we can evacuate as a family unit?"
Until recently, Hamas prevented foreign nationals from leaving. A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says evacuation plans were also delayed. That's because Hamas wanted to evacuate wounded Palestinians. But vetting of their list revealed that a third of them were actually Hamas fighters.
U.S. officials also told Scripps News that Egypt prohibited diplomats from getting close to the Rafah border crossing. That's the only way out with Israel closing its own borders. And Rafah was unexpectedly closed again Wednesday for an unspecified security reason, according to the State Department.
"The remaining United States citizens that we're in contact with are informing us that they just want to come home. They're also afraid that they're going to be forgotten and not added to the lists," said Charara.
The lawyers say U.S. citizens are in dire need of medical attention. And that disparities run deep on this sliver of land off the Mediterranean Sea: "Israeli Americans were evacuated using a Royal Caribbean cruise line and were escorted and greeted onto the ship by U.S. government officials. But Palestinian Americans who are trapped in Gaza are not receiving that same type of treatment," said Shamieh.
A State Department spokesperson told Scripps News the security environment in Gaza is different than Israel. That for years prior to the war, U.S. officials have been prohibited from traveling to Gaza to provide U.S. citizens routine and emergency services.
The official said the U.S. government won't stop working to get U.S. citizens and their families out, but because U.S. doesn't control the border and for security reasons, it's difficult to provide complete and reliable numbers on how many Americans remain. The Gaza Health Ministry, which is controlled by Hamas, says more than 10,000 Palestinians have been killed since Israel retaliated for the Oct. 7 attack, which caused around 1,400 Israeli deaths.
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