Although extensive international negotiations led to the release of four hostages captured by Hamas, many foreign nationals in Gaza, including as many as 600 Americans, are still blocked by the U.S.-designated terrorist group from crossing into Gaza. Egypt, according to Biden administration officials.
“So far, at least, Hamas has prevented them from leaving, demonstrating once again its complete disregard for civilians of all kinds stuck in Gaza,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a television interview on Sunday. .
On Monday, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller clarified that the United States now believes that after weeks of negotiations with Egypt and Israel aimed at guaranteeing safe passage for the Americans, only Hamas was doing so. obstacle.
“We believe Egypt is willing to deal with American citizens if they can get to Egyptian authorities. Hamas simply needs to stop blocking their exit,” Miller said.
Miller also said that while U.S. officials were not in direct communication with Hamas, they urged Hamas to stand down in messages sent by “a number of partners.”
The Biden administration worked shortly after the October 7 attacks on Israel to reopen the Rafah Gate – the only border crossing between Gaza and Egypt – to move aid into the region and allow foreign nationals to leave.
Although a limited number of trucks carrying food, water and medicine were able to enter Gaza for the first time on Saturday, so far no foreign nationals have been allowed to leave.
Miller explained that “a number of civilians, some American citizens” flocked to the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing when it first opened, but none were able to leave because Hamas “was there to prevent anyone from cross the gate to the Gaza side. on the Egyptian side. »
According to U.S. officials, the Egyptian government has also been reluctant to allow civilians to leave Gaza through the Rafah Gate due to the country’s deep concern over security threats posed by terrorist activities in the Sinai Peninsula.
Egyptian officials are also likely keen to avoid the image of thousands of people crossing the border from Gaza – wary that the country could appear complicit in what its president and other Middle East leaders described it as “ethnic cleansing” of Gaza.
Although obtaining Egypt’s cooperation to ultimately facilitate the departure of American citizens would be a diplomatic success for the administration, it does not yet appear that Cairo has indicated that it would grant the same opportunity to parents, children, brothers and sisters and partners of American nationals in Gaza.
Miller said the administration’s goal was still for immediate family members of U.S. citizens passing through the Rafah Gate to also be allowed to leave, but that it was an “ongoing conversation” with Egypt.
With a potential Israeli ground incursion looming, the already dire situation facing Americans and their loved ones inside Gaza could soon get even worse.
Abood Okal, a 36-year-old American who has been stranded in Gaza with his wife and one-year-old son since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas, told his lawyer, Sammy Nabulsi, that the family was grouped in a house with 40 other people, sleeping on the floor, sharing meager amounts of food, and for an entire day they had been forced to drink salt water to survive.
Nabulsi said in an interview with ABC News Live on Monday that Okal’s family was ordered by the State Department to go to the Rafah crossing four times, but each time no one was allowed to pass through the door.
“I think the problem is that the United States is not focused on this effort at all,” Nabulsi said. “It’s unacceptable to me. It should be unacceptable to every American citizen and this entire country.”
Although the State Department says Hamas is preventing them from fleeing to safety, Miller said the Americans stuck in Gaza are “in a different situation” from the roughly 220 individuals the Israel Defense Forces say are still there. held hostage by the group.
“I’m not trying to downplay the situation at all,” Miller said, acknowledging that Americans like Okal and his family are facing “deplorable” circumstances and vowing that U.S. officials are “working intensely” to get them out.
The administration provided no figures or estimates of the number of 500 to 600 Americans believed to be trapped in Gaza who contacted the State Department for help.
“We have a list of Americans registered with us, and when we have information about the possibility of transiting out of Gaza, we provide it to everyone,” Miller said.