U.S. Citizens Leave Gaza as Israel Presses Offensive

From a Washington Post story by Hajar Harb, Kereem Fahim, Bryan Pietsch, and Joanna Slater headlined “Dozens of U.S. citizens depart Gaza as Israel presses offensive”:

Injured Palestinians and foreign passport holders were able to leave the Gaza Strip for Egypt for a second day on Thursday, including some of the hundreds of American citizens the Biden administration has been trying to extricate for weeks.

But with the end of their long ordeal in sight, Americans said they were still encountering difficulties at the border, because the names of their relatives were not on the list of those approved to exit. As they waited at the border Thursday, they also wondered why the United States — whose allies Israel and Egypt control access to Gaza — had taken so long to get them out.

“We did not feel that the American Embassy made official efforts to evacuate its citizens in Gaza,” said Ruba Mushtaha, 40, a Palestinian American who was on the list of those approved to leave but said she was told her 14-year-old daughter was not.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said at a White House briefing that 74 U.S. citizens and their family members had made it to the Egyptian side of the border on Thursday. That was in addition to five Americans who departed Gaza on Wednesday, he said.

As some left, the death toll continued to rise in the besieged enclave, with Israel saying it was pressing its offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza City. A doctor near the Jabalya refugee camp — the site of two days of deadly Israel airstrikes — said the bombardment was continuing, killing or wounding dozens.

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees said Thursday that four of its shelters in Gaza had been damaged in the previous 24 hours, including a school that was sheltering civilians in Jabalya, “reportedly killing at least 20 people and injuring five.” The statement did not specify the source of the damage.

In a statement Thursday that mentioned the strikes on Jabalya, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Israel’s “current operational approach is causing an unacceptable level of civilian harm,” in a rare break with the vigorous support Israel’s military campaign has received from the White House and congressional leaders.

“I urge Israel to immediately reconsider its approach,” he wrote, saying it should shift to a more “deliberate and proportionate counterterrorism campaign.”

At the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, 341 foreign passport holders and 21 injured Palestinians had been processed through the Palestinian side of the border by early Thursday afternoon, according to Wael Abu Omar, the spokesman for the Gaza border authority.

Those authorized to cross include approximately 400 U.S. passport holders, many of whom have been told repeatedly over the past few weeks by American officials that they would be able to leave Gaza, only to find the border crossing closed. The Biden administration has accused Hamas of obstructing the exit of Americans.

Of the many civilians contacted inside Gaza who are waiting to leave, none have said that Hamas or anyone else has physically prevented them from crossing. But the border gate, until Wednesday, was not operational. Some cited other obstacles, including securing fuel for cars while Gaza is under a complete Israeli blockade and avoiding frequent airstrikes on the roads.

In a voice message, Mushtaha, who lives in the United States, said she arrived in Gaza two months before the conflict erupted on Oct. 7, when Hamas militants stormed into Israel, killing 1,400 people. After Israeli officials warned residents of northern Gaza to head south, she and her family went to Khan Younis, where they sheltered with dozens of other people.

“The situation was very dangerous. Terror settled in our hearts,” she said. Her husband and children were back in the United States, she said. “I was communicating with them and saying goodbye,” she said.

After she asked to be evacuated through Israel’s international airport, American officials told her she would have to wait for the Rafah border crossing to open. On Thursday she was at the border, but her daughter was not on the list of evacuees, despite receiving what she said was confirmation from U.S. officials that her daughter would be included.

“I am confused and worried after everything that happened,” she said. Over the past few weeks, she said, her daughter “saw what she had never seen in her life.”

Jamal Kaoud, a Palestinian American who has a heart condition and was running low on medication, was able to leave Gaza on Thursday, his sister-in-law, Haifa Kaoud, who lives near Dallas, said in an interview. But three of his siblings, as well as his nephew, all U.S. citizens, are still in Gaza and were not on the list of people permitted to leave Thursday.

The Kaouds had been in Gaza to visit another brother who lives in the Strip, the first time in decades they had all been together, Haifa Kaoud said. During weeks of war, “by chance, they are in a house which the bombs missed,” she said. “But they could be in any other place and we could lose them, and I can’t imagine that. I don’t know why they are there until now.”

As the war in Gaza stretched into a fourth week, Abood Okal, another Palestinian American, struggled to stay hopeful. It was getting harder and harder to find drinking water. Bread was scarce. Missile and artillery strikes kept the family awake all night, he said, and each morning they felt lucky to be alive.

A scientist who lives outside Boston, Okal, 36, his wife and their 1-year-old son left Gaza late Thursday morning local time. The family is on its way to Cairo, according to a statement released by Sammy Nabulsi, a friend and lawyer in Boston. They are “exhausted” and “physically and emotionally drained,” it said. They expressed gratitude to everyone who worked for their return to the United States and asked for “compassion and prayers for the innocent civilians in Gaza.”

Gaza’s Health Ministry on Thursday issued a desperate appeal for fuel, saying that two hospitals were “hours away” from shutdown because the generators would stop working, threatening children in incubators, patients on respirators and others.

Hospitals in Gaza will have fuel transferred to them when it is needed, Israeli military officials said Thursday.

“We have not allowed fuel to enter the Gaza Strip until now. We are checking every day the situation in the Strip,” Herzi Halevi, chief of the Israel Defense Forces general staff, told reporters, adding that hospitals had been saying for “more than a week now” that they would run out the next day.

“We will see when that day arrives, and fuel will be transferred, with monitoring, to the hospitals,” Halevi said. “We will do it so that it will not reach the Hamas infrastructure and will not serve war aims but will help the real needs of the sick.”

Israeli and U.S. officials have said that Hamas has been hoarding stockpiles of fuel that could otherwise be used for civilian purposes, including in hospitals. In a separate briefing Thursday, the IDF said it estimated that Hamas had stockpiled about 200,000 gallons of diesel fuel.

Later, though, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said no decision has been reached on supplying fuel to the hospital generators in Gaza, despite Halevi’s earlier suggestion.

“We haven’t made any decision about transferring fuel. I haven’t said anything on this subject, and the war cabinet hasn’t made a decision,” he said.

Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo, Miriam Berger in Jerusalem and Alice Crites and Cate Brown in Washington contributed to this report.

Kareem Fahim is the Istanbul bureau chief and a Middle East correspondent for The Washington Post. He previously spent 11 years at the New York Times, covering the Arab world as a Cairo-based correspondent, among other assignments. Kareem also worked as a reporter at the Village Voice.

Bryan Pietsch is a reporter covering foreign affairs on the International desk, based in D.C. He was previously based in Seoul, where he was the inaugural reporter in The Post’s news hub there.

Joanna Slater is a national correspondent for The Washington Post focusing on the Northeast. Previously she served as the India bureau chief based in New Delhi. Prior to joining The Post, she was a foreign correspondent for the Globe & Mail and a reporter at the Wall Street Journal. Her postings include assignments in Mumbai, Hong Kong and Berlin.

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