‘Every man for himself’: Guilt and anger for Palestinian Americans hoping to flee Gaza

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OCTOBER 16, 2023

Jason Shawa and his family, daughter Zayneb, daughter Melak, and his wife Najla. (Courtesy Jason Shawa)

Palestinian American Jason Shawa, 55, heard the news that the Rafah crossing, on Gaza’s southern border with Egypt, will be opened Monday, giving him hope of possible escape from the war.

But it was fleeting, as airstrikes rained down on Gaza and he confronted the uncertainty of whether he, his wife, Najla, and their two daughters would be able to flee.

The translator’s wife and children still don’t have U.S. passports, and he has received no official word to indicate that the border will actually be opening. And even if it is, he said, it is “highly risky” to travel amid ongoing Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza strip.

“There are no guarantees. There’s not like a safe corridor offered to foreign nationals when they leave. It’s every man for himself,” said Shawa, who is staying in a small two-room cabin in central Gaza, about 40 minutes from the border, with his family and 50 neighbors after they had to evacuate their homes.

Mai Abushaaban, a Palestinian American, is also fearful. She said that her mother and sister would try to cross into Egypt on Monday. They became trapped in Gaza while visiting her sick grandfather.

“If it is true and it’s open, they’re going to go,” said Abushaaban, 22, a Houston native, referring to the lack of details from the embassy or the State Department that led to false hopes last week. “We’re hoping it’s for real this time.”

But late Sunday, Abushaaban received an email from the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem saying embassy officials “anticipate the situation at the Rafah crossing will remain fluid and unpredictable and it is unclear whether, or for how long, travelers will be permitted to transit the crossing.”

The message left Abushaaban feeling “worried that it might not work out,” like when they tried to cross days ago — but still hopeful.

Up to 600 Americans remain in Gaza, according to the State Department, amid an increasing humanitarian crisis as clean water, food, fuel and medical supplies dwindle. There hasn’t been electricity in the territory for days after the Israeli government established a blockade in retaliation for Hamas’ brutal terror attack.

More than 2,450 people have been killed in Gaza and 9,200 have been injured. In Israel, 1,400 people have been killed and 3,500 have been wounded. The toll of American deaths from Hamas’ attack on Israel and the subsequent war stands at 30, a State Department spokesperson said Sunday.

A series of automated emails from the State Department and inconclusive phone calls have left Palestinian Americans dubious about the likelihood of their safely getting out.

Since the war broke out, the Rafah crossing has been closed, and it has also sustained physical damage from Israeli airstrikes on Gaza.

Asked Sunday on NBC News whether there will be no shelling near the crossing as people try to leave and humanitarian assistance comes in, Israel Defense Forces Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said, “It’s very much up to Hamas to decide if they are going to allow and what is going to happen.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Rafah crossing will be opened for U.S. citizens and their immediate family members but provided no details about timing to reporters Sunday in Cairo. The State Department didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

A Palestinian Embassy representative told NBC News that officials at the Rafah crossing said “foreign national Palestinians” will be able to cross the border starting 9 a.m. local time.

Shawa, who was born in Seattle to a Palestinian father and an American mother, said the U.S. government isn’t offering any other “tangible assistance” to citizens in Gaza other than orchestrating the opening of the Rafah crossing. Cairo is an arduous six- to eight-hour drive from the border crossing, through the Sinai Peninsula and through several Egyptian military checkpoints.

Palestinians with dual citizenship gather outside Rafah border crossing with Egypt (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters)

‘The double standard’

Abushaaban, who has crossed the Rafah border 10 times during past trips to visit family in Gaza, said opening up the border doesn’t necessarily guarantee passage through it. There are two parts to the land crossing — first, a security check manned by the Palestinian Authority and then a bus ride to the Egypt-controlled part of the border. She said the Egyptian side is usually “chaotic,” with long wait times.

“If anything goes wrong from point A to point B, they will turn the buses around and turn everyone back without any notice,” she said of her previous experiences crossing the border. The long drive to Cairo from Gaza is “risky,” with multiple military checkpoints along the Sinai.

The first automated email Abushaaban got from the State Department on Tuesday included information about how Americans in Israel would be evacuated, but the messaging for those in Gaza wasn’t as helpful.

The Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt on Oct. 10, 2023. (Said Khatib / AFP – Getty Images)

“Given the dynamic security situation in Gaza, U.S. citizens should assess their own security when deciding whether to travel. U.S. government personnel are not able to travel to Gaza or the Gaza periphery to assist at this time,” read the email, which was reviewed by NBC News.

The State Department then followed up a couple of days later acknowledging its “most recent message, sent to a large list of U.S. citizens located in Gaza and Israel, may not be applicable to you,” because it detailed options for Americans in Israel who have access to Ben Gurion Airport — which those in Gaza don’t have.

The email added that the State Department was working on solutions but that the situation is “incredibly complex.”

“It is very frustrating for me as someone with one foot in Palestine and one foot in the United States, the State Department saying that Americans in Israel will be evacuating them via boat and plane to either Germany, Cyprus or Greece and that Palestinians in Gaza should just kind of, you know, wait,” Abushaaban said, referring to the State Department’s communications.

Emilee Rauschenberger’s five children.

Emilee Rauschenberger, who was in Khan Yunis with her husband and five children visiting her in-laws when the war started, echoed Abushaaban’s sentiments of feeling neglected as an American citizen in Gaza by the U.S. government.

“I feel the government kind of feels absolved of it as a responsibility because of the politics of it all,” Rauschenberger said, adding that she doesn’t feel there’s been an attempt to save American lives in Gaza.

“The double standard is incredibly harsh,” she said.

Blinken has been on a dayslong tour of the Middle East, where he has met with leaders from Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Qatar. The effort was meant to prevent the war between Israel and Hamas from spreading and to encourage Israel not to target civilians.

‘Second-class citizens’

The lack of guidance from the U.S. government cements a feeling Palestinian Americans say they are familiar with.

“Palestinian Americans are almost, like, I personally feel like we were treated as second-class citizens in the country where we hold citizenship and, you know, just as lawfully as anyone else,” Abushaaban said.

Shawa said that over the years living in Gaza with his family, he has never felt prioritized by the U.S. government.

“I mean, Gaza has to 2.2 or 3 million citizens. The vast majority of us are not affiliated to Hamas or any other political, Palestinian faction,” Shawa said, referring to U.’S. politicians speaking about Gaza as if it is a “Hamas block.”

“We have children, we go to schools, we have birthdays, we have restaurants, we have, I mean, everything that makes up a normal community,” Shawa said.

His eldest daughter, Zayneb, turned 9 on Sunday.

“They found some kind of, you know, packaged donut-y thingy and stuck a candle in it and sang ‘Happy Birthday,’” Shawa said, referring to the impromptu gesture some of the children organized for her.

For Shawa, trying to cross the border with his family is not only dangerous but also emotionally taxing, and it could mean they will never see their loved ones again.

“I mean, we are with people, friends, neighbors, relatives who don’t have this privilege,” Shawa said. “It’s really, really, really hard to make the decision to leave them behind.”


Courtesy: This article was originally published on NBCNews.com