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Palestinian-Americans stuck in Gaza say they feel trapped, abandoned by US Embassy

By Yahya Abou-Ghazala, CNN

(CNN) — As bombs rained down on Gaza Monday, Palestinian-Americans visiting or living there said they were desperately trying to find ways out of the region but have received little or no support from US Embassy officials, even though they are US citizens.

They said they were told by the embassy that routes out of the Gaza Strip had been narrowed down to one: A passage though Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which reportedly had been closed for a period of time Monday because of bombing.

“U.S. citizens in Gaza who wish to leave and can do so safely are advised to check the status of the Rafah Crossing into Egypt,” the US Embassy in Jerusalem said in a security alert on Monday.

Said Shaath, 64, of Fresno, California, who is currently working in the humanitarian sector in Gaza, said embassy officials told one of his cousins to make his way to the Egypt border crossing if he could do so safely.

“I don’t know what ‘safely’ means? We are living in Rimal, it’s very risky to drive all the way to south Rafah terminal,” he said. “This is not secure because along the way there is a chance that you will be targeted,” given the constant barrage of Israeli airstrikes. Under normal circumstances, the drive from Rimal to the Rafah crossing can take up to an hour.

A CNN reporter on the phone with Shaath could hear loud explosions from the bombardment throughout the call.

“My house is shaking. I swear to God the pillars in my house are cracking,” Shaath said.

Lena Beseiso, 57, of Salt Lake City described the terror of being trapped: “It hurts, you jump out of your skin thinking this is the last breath.”

Beseiso – who had not been to Gaza in 12 years – traveled there in late March to visit and spend time with her husband, daughters, niece, and grandson. She too is frustrated by the lack of options given by the US government after repeatedly calling the US Embassy emergency lines to seek help evacuating.

“When we finally got somebody on the phone, we were pleading. (My daughters) were practically crying saying they needed their assistance,” she said. A woman on the line said she could not help them, Beseiso added.

“She just kept saying, ‘Sorry, we were not notified to help you, we were not given any information to assist you,’” Beseiso said. “She kept on telling the girls this emergency line is for Israel.”

CNN’s calls to the US Embassy in Jerusalem Monday evening were directed to the branch office in Tel Aviv. A person who answered there told CNN they were advised not to comment beyond what was published on the embassy website.

“We continue to closely monitor the dynamic security situation,” a State Department spokesperson told CNN, referring US citizens to the department’s website, travel.state.gov, for assistance.

Abdulla Okal, 34, is watching the drama unfold from his family’s home in New Jersey. His wife Haneen and their three young children – ages 8, 2 and 2 months, all of whom are US citizens – are currently stuck in Gaza, he told CNN.

“I don’t know what to do to be honest,” Okal said. “This is the first time my wife and my kids are far from me, and it’s war, it’s a real war.”

Okal said his wife called the US Embassy on Saturday, and they gave her a link to fill out an application form and told her to wait for a call back. She called again Monday after not hearing back, Okal said, and was told that they wouldn’t be able to help her soon but that they would keep her posted.

She hasn’t heard anything else, her husband said.

Okal is desperate and says the thought of his family traveling to the last remaining crossing in Rafah is scary: “It’s really dangerous, you’re going from the north all the way to the south … the routes are bombed, there are huge holes, the cars can’t even drive on it.”

The State Department has long warned Americans against travel to Gaza “due to terrorism, civil unrest, and armed conflict.”

The US government is not “actively considering” emergency evacuation of US citizens in Israel, a spokesperson for the National Security Council told CNN.

In a statement Monday, President Joe Biden said the State Department is providing consular assistance and updated security alerts to keep Americans apprised of the situation as it evolves, but that Americans would need to arrange their own travel plans to leave the country.

“For those who desire to leave, commercial flights and ground options are still available,” Biden said.

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