The U.S. government estimates that between 500 and 600 Americans are among the roughly 2.3 million people trapped in the Gaza Strip, which Israel has completely sealed off since the Palestinian territory's Hamas rulers launched their unprecedented terror attack on October 7. While hundreds ofof Israel since then, not a single person — with the exception of four — has been allowed to leave Gaza.
Israel has pummelled Gaza with relentless airstrikes for almost three weeks — all targeting Hamas fighters, weapons and infrastructure, according to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Health officials in the Hamas-run enclave claim the bombardment has killed more than 7,000 people.
Israel disputes that figure and has vowed to "destroy Hamas," which it blames for all deaths in Gaza, accusing the militants of using civilians as human shields. But the U.N. says the airstrikes have driven roughly half of Gaza's people from their homes, and along with Palestinian officials, it says nowhere is safe in Gaza.
CBS News has spoken with Americans among those who've tried to follow Israel's guidance for civilians to flee toward Gaza's southern border with Egypt ahead of a long-expected IDF ground invasion. Nabil Alshurafa, in Illinois, told CBS News his mother Naela was visiting family in Gaza when the war broke out, and she's now among the thousands stranded with little water, food or power.
The U.S. State Department urged Americans in Gaza to head for the Rafah border crossing with Egypt if they felt it was safe to do so, in the hope that the border gates will be opened to allow at least some foreign nationals out of the decimated strip of land.
Despite weeks of intense negotiations, the U.S. has been unable to secure an agreement between Israel, Egypt — which controls the border crossing — and Hamas, to open the border gates.
Why hasn't the Egypt-Gaza border opened?
A U.S. State Department spokesperson told CBS News this week that "every bit of this is complicated," comparing the negotiations over the Rafah crossing to a multi-layer puzzle.
"We're making progress and I think we'll get there, but it's difficult," the spokesperson said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli officials have put all the blame for the locked border gates on Hamas.
"Hamas has blocked them from leaving, showing once again, its total disregard for civilians of any kind who are, who are stuck in Gaza," Blinken
Egypt, however, says it's Israel bombing the area around the crossing that has prevented foreign nationals from escaping.
"The Israeli authorities are the reason this matter has been delayed. The Rafah crossing is not safe for individuals," Diaa Rashwan, the head of Egypt's State Information Service (SIS), said at a news conference Tuesday in Cairo. He accused Israeli forces of bombing Gaza roads leading to Rafah four times, close to where foreign nationals have gathered to wait for an opening.
Rashwan said there were people waiting to cross into Egypt from 45 countries, the majority of which have embassies in Egypt, including the U.S.
He said Egypt was ready to allow the foreign and dual nationals through, however "the crossing needs to have employees on the [Palestinian] side to process the exit of individuals, but Israel says these employees are Hamas members, so they are at risk [of being killed] if they go to the crossing."
Until the diplomatic logjam is cleared, for families like the Alshurafas, there's only anxiety, and it's building by the day.
"These are Americans"
At his home outside Chicago, Nabil told CBS News about the conversations he's had with his mother, a retired hair stylist from southern California, since Israel started bombing Gaza.
"They're bombing the area," she told him at one point. He said it was "terrifying," and he could hear the explosions on the phone.
Naela, 66, has lived in the U.S. for 33 years. Her son said her cooking is legendary, and she's used those skills to feed refugees in California.
"It baffles me that she has no food now," he told CBS News. "This is a woman who's fed thousands of people."
Naela was only supposed to be away from home for 10 days to visit her sick mother. According to her son, she sleeps next to her mother, and the women cling to each other during airstrikes.
Early in the conflict, before losing internet access, Naela was interviewed by the Al Jazeera network, and she issued an emotional appeal: "I'm really asking the government to take me out soon, as soon as they can."
"These are Americans," Nabil told CBS News, adding that despite the war around her, she is still a mother to her kids: "A few days ago when I called her… she's telling me to pay the gas bill and the Costco bill, and I'm like, 'Mom, seriously.'"
He said his mother had made four attempts to leave Gaza through the Rafah crossing, but was prevented each time — once by an Israeli airstrike.
"You can't just tell her, 'You go to the border. Maybe you'll get out. Maybe not. Try your luck,'" he said. "The Israeli Americans are getting charter flights, cruise ships, food, wifi… The U.S. citizens in Gaza, what are they getting?"
"Anxiety, abandonment and overall helplessness"
Noor Bsiso is another Palestinian American with family members stuck in Gaza. She travelled to Egypt hoping to help her sister and her children once they cross into Egypt, but she's still waiting for that to happen.
"The U.S. embassy here in Cairo redirects me to the emergency line which, in turn, tells me to monitor the travel website and reach out to the email given," she said. "They let me know they have a team working 24/7 to make things happen."
"My sister has received emails that Rafah border is possibly opening or actually opening, such as the most recent email from 10/21. They go to the border despite dangerous conditions and don't receive further communication — left to wait until they feel hopeless and return to where they are staying."
"People are being killed and families are stuck in Gaza," Bsiso said. "I, along with thousands of Americans, are calling on U.S. officials — especially President Biden, to demand a cease-fire and assist their citizens in evacuating from the Gaza Strip."
"No words can describe what they are going through," she said. "Feelings of fright, anxiety, abandonment and overall helplessness. We worry about them regardless, even more every time we can't get ahold of my sister and family."
Nabil Alshurafa said he felt "betrayed by my government," and he failed to "understand why they're not trying to get my mother out via the sea or through Israel, our ally here."
He told CBS News his family was suing the U.S. government, which he said had an obligation to get his mother out of Gaza.
"Honestly, I'm kind of just preparing myself right now, you know, for the fact that this might be a reality where I get a phone call that tells me my mother's not alive."
Adriana Diaz reported from Chicago, Anam Siddiq from Los Angeles, Ahmed Shawkat from Cairo, Egypt, and Tucker Reals from London, U.K.
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