American citizens and their families trapped in the embattled Gaza Strip have initiated a legal battle against the US State Department, following weeks of relentless and unsuccessful attempts to exit the conflict zone. The Gaza Strip has been subjected to relentless Israeli bombardment since the violent actions carried out by Hamas on October 7.
Approximately a dozen lawsuits have either been filed or are in the process of being filed against the US State Department, as reported by the Arab American Civil Rights League.
Maria Kari, an immigration attorney and writer involved in three of these lawsuits in California and Texas, expressed her concerns, stating, “It’s only a matter of time until I receive the heartbreaking news that one of my clients has lost their life. I have never encountered such urgency in filing lawsuits due to life-and-death circumstances.”
On Wednesday, in a significant development, a limited number of dual nationals and severely injured residents in Gaza began to depart the conflict-stricken region after an agreement was brokered between Israel, Hamas, Egypt, Qatar, and the United States to partially open the Rafah crossing along the Gaza-Egypt border. President Joe Biden announced, “We anticipate the departure of American citizens today, and we expect more departures in the coming days.” However, the actual number of US citizens who have successfully left remains unclear.
In an email sent on Tuesday by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs to a US citizen in Gaza, it was stated, “The US Government has received credible information that limited departures from Gaza may commence this week. US citizens and their family members will be assigned specific departure dates to ensure an orderly crossing.”
Despite this progress, Maria Kari has no intentions of halting her legal actions as long as her clients remain in Gaza, which marks nearly a month since the commencement of the conflict in the besieged territory. According to the Gaza Health Ministry, almost 8,800 Palestinians have lost their lives due to Israeli airstrikes, while approximately 1,400 Israelis were killed in the Hamas attacks on October 7.
Kari is among approximately 40 attorneys across 18 states who are pro bono advocates in these lawsuits. They argue that their clients received unequal treatment in repatriation efforts compared to those carried out for evacuating US citizens in Israel. Kari stated, “We are simply petitioning the federal court to compel the Biden administration to extend the same protections to our clients, which they have already provided to another group of US citizens.”
The first of these lawsuits was filed on October 17 in the Eastern District of Michigan. It asserts that the US government should offer Palestinian-Americans the same safeguards it has provided to American citizens in Israel when it comes to repatriation. The lawsuit argues, “If our government can evacuate US citizens under threat in Israel from missiles launched by Hamas into Israel, it certainly owes Palestinian-Americans the same safeguards from the indiscriminate bombings carried out by its ally, Israel, using munitions financed by American taxpayers. Unquestionably, unwavering support for Israel cannot come at the expense of American lives.”
Americans in Israel have been transported by chartered flights and a Royal Caribbean cruise ship to facilitate their evacuation. US citizens in Gaza have repeatedly been directed to proceed to the Rafah crossing with Egypt, where they were told to wait for evacuations that have not materialized. The Rafah crossing is jointly operated by Hamas and Egypt, although Israel has been controlling the passage in terms of determining who enters and exits Gaza. On Wednesday, it was reported that Israel and Egypt had approved a list of foreign passport holders expected to cross into Egypt in the coming days.
Nabil Alshurafa, a medical researcher in Chicago, expressed his disillusionment, as his mother had been waiting at the Rafah crossing, hoping to leave Gaza. However, her efforts were thwarted when an Israeli airstrike struck nearby on October 10. Nabil Alshurafa filed a lawsuit earlier this week in the Central District of California.
The exact number of US citizens currently in Gaza has not been confirmed by the State Department, but various news reports estimate the figure to be between 500 and 600. Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, announced on Tuesday that 400 US citizens and their families were seeking repatriation.
A spokesperson from the US embassy mentioned, “We continue to collaborate urgently with Egypt, the United Nations, and Israel to facilitate the safe departure of US citizens and their immediate family members from Gaza and their transit through Egypt to their final destinations.”
Nabil Alshurafa described his interactions with the State Department over the past few weeks as vague and unclear. He expressed his sentiments, stating, “The State Department speaks as if they have no leverage.”
Kal Raustiala, a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles, commented on the legal obligations of the US government toward its citizens abroad, noting that they are legally complex. “There is no clear legal requirement to protect or repatriate American citizens. According to international law, countries always possess the right, though not necessarily the obligation, to provide protection,” Raustiala stated. He further emphasized that political and moral motivations often guide the actions of countries in assisting their citizens abroad.
Mai Abushaaban, a 22-year-old who resides in the Southern District of Texas, filed a lawsuit on Tuesday to secure the safe passage of her mother, aged 45, and her sister, aged 20, out of Gaza. She remarked, “For my mom and sister, there is a glimmer of hope that they can escape to safety. Yet, they find themselves caught between two difficult choices. They do not want to remain and risk their lives, but they also carry a sense of guilt for leaving behind our loved ones.”