A wall of red tape between Gaza and US

Smoke and flames rising during an Israeli air strike in central Gaza Strip. — Reuters

GHADA Redwan, a 48-year-old pharmacist in Houston, Texas, has been trying to get her parents out of the Gaza Strip for months. Their bags, packed and ready to go, have been sitting by their door in Rafah, the city where Israel is now conducting a military offensive.

But Ghada has hit roadblocks at every turn. And like other Palestinian-Americans desperate to get their relatives to safety, she has described a confounding bureaucratic maze involving the US State Department, the governments of Israel and Egypt, politicians, advocacy groups, lawyers and more.

The closure of the Rafah border crossing into Egypt – the only way out for civilians – has thrown an already complicated system into disarray, leading to calls for the United States to make a more forceful effort to evacuate the relatives of American citizens.

“You feel like there’s nothing you can do,” Ghada said.

“You live comfortably, you have money, you’re a US citizen, your parents are suffering and there’s nothing you can do for them. It is just insane.”

Ghada last spoke to her mother a day after an Israeli strike that killed dozens of Palestinians in a camp for displaced people in Rafah.

“There is no safe place,” her mother told her. “Just pray for us.”

Since the start of the war seven months ago, more than 1,800 US citizens and their families have left Gaza with the assistance of the State Department, US officials say.

They are only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of civilians desperate to leave Gaza as the already dire conditions there deteriorate.

And while the vast majority of Palestinians have no way to escape, the State Department told Americans late last year that they could reach out to the department for help getting their immediate family members – even those who are not US citizens – onto the border crossing list.

The criteria are strict: only parents, spouses, and unmarried under-21 children of US citizens are eligible for the assistance.

The United States gathers the names and provides them to Israeli and Egyptian authorities, who control the border, and ask that they be allowed to cross.

And then they wait. Families check a Facebook page run by authorities in Gaza, which gets updated as people are approved to cross into Egypt.

If their name appears, they are advised to go immediately to a border crossing.

But that is by no means the end of the story. Often, a person’s name never makes it onto the list being kept at the border, and they are turned away.

And with the Rafah crossing closed since May 7, the Facebook page has not been updated.

For those who do cross over, they can begin the process of getting a green card and ultimately reuniting with family in the US.

It is difficult to know how long that process will take.

Alicia Nieves, a legal advocate with the Arab American Civil Rights League, said she had a client who escaped Gaza and was able to get a visa to the United States within a month.

But some people wait much longer.

“Every part of this process has been baffling to me,” said Sammy Nabulsi, a lawyer in Massachusetts who has helped families navigate the system to leave Gaza.

Immigrant advocates and some lawmakers have pushed for an overhaul of US assistance, saying the system established after the Russian invasion of Ukraine was far more generous.

That system has allowed tens of thousands of Ukrainians to enter the US, regardless of their familial ties, as long as they have a financial sponsor.

“Given the conditions in Rafah, the lack of aid getting through, these people are unfortunately in the shadow of death.

“We need to do right by our own citizens, our country, and expand the criteria to get more relatives out and find a path to the US,” Sammy said.

Democratic senators including Cory Booker of New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Dick Durbin of Illinois have also called for expanding the categories of people the US government is willing to help to include siblings, children of siblings and grandchildren, and speeding up processing of applications for humanitarian parole, which allows temporary entry into the US.

A White House representative said the government is “constantly evaluating policy proposals to further support Palestinians who are family members of American citizens and may want to join them” in the US.

Government officials have discussed the idea of allowing some Palestinians in Egypt to enter the US through the refugee programme, as well as considering humanitarian parole, according to three sources with knowledge of the conversations. They asked for anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Republicans in Congress have opposed the idea of allowing refugees from Gaza into the US.

As the war grinds on, Palestinian-Americans in the US feel powerless to help.

Abdalwahab Hlayel, a 43-year-old businessman in Minnesota, said he worries constantly about his father, stepmother and other family members in Gaza. But he cannot bear to speak to them while their fate is in limbo.

“I hate calling them because every time I call they are expecting good news from me,” said Abdalwahab, who submitted their names to the State Department.

But the names of his father, who is 73 and diabetic, and his stepmother have never appeared on the Facebook page.

“I have nothing to tell them,” Abdalwahab said.

He is not even sure his father would leave Gaza because it would mean leaving behind two of his children, ages 17 and 21, who do not fit the criteria.

So now, Abdalwahab spends hours clutching his phone, scanning for updates and tracking the latest news from a tiny enclave where more than 34,000 people have been killed, according to health officials there.

Representative Greg Casar, a Texas Democrat, has been advocating on behalf of the parents of Rasheda Alfaiomy, a 33-year-old US citizen who lives in Austin.

They are trapped in Gaza, but there is only so much that can be done while the Rafah crossing is closed.

“We are the only hope they have,” said Rasheda, who has more than a dozen relatives in Gaza, in addition to her parents.

She said she regularly receives videos of her family members in refugee camps in Gaza begging for help.

“They are crying on the phone,” she said. “The kids are crying. Adults are crying.” — ©2024 The New York Times Company

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