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600 Americans are estimated to be trapped in Gaza, including a Massachusetts family

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In the first few days of the war between Israel and Hamas, Wafaa Abuzayda, an American and a mother, made a plea from the Gaza Strip on this program to the U.S. government.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WAFAA ABUZAYDA: Please, please save us. Please. I have a 1 1/2 year. I got him after six times of IVF. Please, save us. Please.

FADEL: Today, more than two weeks into this war, the Massachusetts resident is still trapped inside the besieged Palestinian enclave with her baby, Yousef Okal, and her husband, Abood Okal. They are among an estimated 1,700 people with European and U.S. citizenships trapped in the Gaza Strip, along with more than 2.3 million Palestinians who don't hold foreign passports, living under constant Israeli bombardment with no way to escape. They're running out of food and clean water. Over the last two weeks, they've updated us on their efforts to try to get out. Here's Abood Okal.

ABOOD OKAL: This marks the third day that we've attempted to cross based on instructions from the State Department, which has become extremely unacceptable right now. The way that American citizens are being treated in Gaza is just a shame on this government and on the State Department, with all its mighty power and influence.

FADEL: After this message, he waited two more hours. The crossing never opened. He tried again on another day that the State Department told him the border might open for American citizens. It never did. They're sleeping 10 minutes away so they can rush over. But even this far south away from the northern border with Israel, it's not safe. The border crossing itself has been hit at least four times. Last Thursday, Abuzayda sent us this.

ABUZAYDA: Two minutes ago, our neighbors have just got bombed. And Yousef was sleeping next to the window - literally next to the window - and the window broke. We're not safe here because we just heard the ground invasion, it's going to be any moment. And I don't know what to say. I don't know what to say.

FADEL: That constant buzzing you hear in the background, they say it's Israeli drones. And they say it's what they hear all day and night, along with the booms of the airstrikes. Okal says he fears the day will come that they get hit.

OKAL: All it takes is one missile, one airstrike to miss its target or be too close to where you are. And that has happened before.

FADEL: Since the Hamas attack that killed at least 1,400 Israelis, the majority civilians, at least 6,500 Palestinians have been killed in retaliatory Israeli airstrikes, according to the health ministry in Gaza. Upward of 2,700 of the dead are children. This is Okal updating us yesterday.

OKAL: We're trying to stay strong, but we cannot help but feel hopeless and abandoned, given it's been 18 days and yet no concrete help from the State Department to get us out of Gaza.

FADEL: They're sheltering in a single-family home with 40 other people, many American citizens, including a 2-month-old.

OKAL: My parents in their 70s are sleeping on the floor. We share mattresses or give mattresses to those that are older, and the rest of us just sleep on bare floor. Yet we feel fortunate every morning that we wake up and we have lived for another day. But it's becoming increasingly harder and harder to find hope.

FADEL: Abuzayda and Okal's baby, Yousef, isn't sleeping. They're trying to distract him from the wrath of the war. They've been rationing milk to keep him fed, but now...

OKAL: Unfortunately, yesterday, we ran out of milk for him. We opened the last box. And basically tonight, we would be completely out. It would be his first night ever in his entire life to go to sleep without having milk.

FADEL: To send us these latest messages, Okal stood in an open field. It is the only place he could find cell reception and even this act is a risk.

OKAL: The fear from my wife, as well as other family members that are staying with us, that they're afraid that I would be targeted while making one of these phone calls for being mistaken as a scout out for Hamas or whoever else. So even making a phone call is becoming extremely dangerous.

FADEL: When we couldn't get back through after these voice memos on Wednesday morning, we reached out to their lawyer, Sammy Nabulsi. He's Boston-based. He says they're eating tuna or fava beans from cans if they can find them. For a day, they drink salt water out of a well to stay hydrated.

The State Department recently said that Hamas is blocking the exit. Is that something that the facts on the ground bear out?

SAMMY NABULSI: No, not at all. We know it's untrue for two reasons, one is Abood sent me photographs, because he was standing there all day. He sent me photographs because I kept asking, why aren't you able to get through? What's going on? How is it that cars and vehicles are coming in and people aren't going out? The only thing standing between these citizens and safety in Egypt is just a physical gate. There are no militants. There's no army, there's no officers, no government official standing there with them. It's just people waiting to cross the gate. The only officials are Egyptian guards on the other side communicating to Abood and anyone else that asks that they still don't have any instruction to open the gate.

The second reason that it's not true is after this whole day of events, I reached out to the State Department and I asked them what happened. They didn't tell me that Hamas was there blocking people. They said that they were still working out a three-way agreement between Israel, Egypt and the de facto authorities. And then they continued to say, we are close to agreement with two, and we're working the third very hard. They didn't tell me who was who under that scenario, but what was clear is they still didn't have an agreement from any party involved.

FADEL: Are you, as their lawyer, surprised that more than two weeks into this war, they're still stuck, these residents of Massachusetts, U.S. citizens who were supposed to be there on a short vacation and who can't get out?

NABULSI: Going into this, my firm belief has been that a citizen is a citizen is a citizen. It does not matter which side of the wall that you are on. The United States should have been doing and had the responsibility to do everything it could to ensure the safety and security of every American citizen over there in Israel and in Gaza, and they didn't do that. They didn't do that for the people in Gaza. And since then, it has been abundantly clear that the United States has prioritized aid to a foreign government, the destruction of a foreign territory, and the killing of foreign civilians all over the safety and security of American citizens.

President Biden traveled to Israel, gave a speech, came back, gave a primetime speech the very next day asking for more aid, and not in any of those meetings or in any of those speeches did the issue of American citizens in Gaza come up. This family feels completely abandoned. I'm shocked that not only are they not home, but as of today, the United States still doesn't even have a departure option or a timeline for any of them to get out safely.

FADEL: Sammy Nabulsi, a lawyer who represents Wafaa Abuzayda, Abood Okal and their child, who are stuck and trapped in Gaza. Thank you so much for your time.

NABULSI: Thank you for telling their story.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES HEATHER'S "BALANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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