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An overdue reunion became a nightmare for this American family now trapped in Gaza

Israeli forces strike a residential tower in Gaza City on Thursday.
Ahmad Hasaballah
Getty Images
Israeli forces strike a residential tower in Gaza City on Thursday.

Updated October 12, 2023 at 11:08 AM ET

Israel is intensifying air strikes on Gaza after the weekend's surprise air, land and sea attack by Hamas, in which militants killed 1,300 Israelis and took some 150 as hostages.

Israel has retaliated by putting the Gaza Strip under siege, cutting off access to food, water, fuel and electricity for its 2.3 million residents. It's also carrying out heavy bombardments across the territory, killing at least 1,350 people and internally displacing hundreds of thousands of others.

People in Gaza can't leave, since the borders are sealed. The Rafah border crossing, the only path into Egypt, is closed after being hitby multiple Israeli strikes. That also means that outside aid, as well as basic necessities, can't get in.

The Biden administration is urging Israel — publicly and privately — to get humanitarian supplies into Gaza. It's also trying to secure the release of the hostages kidnapped by Hamas, which include an unknown number of Americans.

A senior U.S. official told NPR that it's also working to get approximately 400-600 U.S. citizens out of Gaza, where roughly 100 of them have contacted the embassy for help.

One of them is Wafaa Abuzayda, who is with her family including her one-year-old son.

The 30-year-old grew up in Gaza, but hadn't been back since moving to the U.S. seven years ago. Abuzayda and her husband, who is American, had gone back and forth about when exactly to visit.

"We changed our tickets like three to four times ... and then we decided to come to Gaza at this time," she said. "And our short vacation just turned into a nightmare."

For all the latest developments on this story, listen live to Morning Edition now.

U.S. citizens are trapped in Gaza and Israel

Abuzayda, her husband Abood and their one-and-a-half year old son Yousef traveled from Massachusetts for what was supposed to be a two-week trip. They don't know when they'll be able to go home — and not for lack of trying.

Abuzayda told Morning Edition's Leila Fadel that she called the U.S. embassy for help multiple times a day starting immediately after the attack on Saturday. But they told her repeatedly that they didn't have any updates. Then she tried the embassy in Cairo, to no avail.

"We tell them we're running out of milk, diapers, we're not safe, we're citizens — they're not doing anything," she said. "And in the meantime they keep posting stuff about the U.S. citizens in Israel. Every five minutes they keep reminding the people in Israel to get out of Israel."

At least 22 U.S. citizens died in the fighting in Israel and at least 17 others are unaccounted for, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

And there are many others struggling to leave, since major U.S. airlines have halted flights in and out of the country. The total number is unknown, but New York Rep. Mike Lawler said his district alone has "hundreds of constituents in Israel trying to get home."

The U.S. increased the travel advisory for Israel and the West Bank on Wednesday to level three, or "reconsider travel." The advisory for Gaza remains at level four, "do not travel."

The State Department warns that it's unable to provide "routine or emergency services" to U.S. citizens in Gaza, since U.S. government employees are prohibited from traveling there. Right now no one can get in or out.

Abuzayda, who is staying at her parents' house with other relatives, said her sister-in-law and her three kids had tried to cross the Rafah border, but they had to turn back after it came under an Israeli airstrike.

The U.S. is in discussions about a humanitarian corridor

Nowhere in Gaza is safe from bombardment, Abuzayda said.

There is no electricity. Families are using generators sparingly if they have fuel left — Abuzayda says she can only charge her phone for several hours at a time every few days. The sporadic access to communication means they could lose their connection to the outside world at any moment.

She said it's not safe inside or outside. The markets themselves are running low on supplies. She's trying to make the most of the milk and diapers she has left — and keep Yousef not only safe but in good spirits.

"The hardest feeling ever is to hide your fear and show the opposite, just to keep my son positive," she said. "Because he doesn't understand anything, he thinks this is a fireworks. And every time I tell him, while I'm crying, 'okay mommy, clap clap this is a fireworks, it's nothing.' Sometimes he will jump, he will be scared and freaking out if I'm not next to him."

Abuzayda is holding out hope that officials will make a safe path for civilians to leave Gaza through the Rafah border and into Egypt.

The Biden administration is discussing the prospect with Egypt and Israel, but had not made any progress as of Wednesday.

When asked what she wants the U.S. government to hear, Abuzayda made an emotional plea over the airwaves.

"Please, please save us," she said, her voice strained. "Please. I have a one-and-a-half year old, I got him after six times of IVF ... We have been trying to call the embassy since Saturday. Nobody's helping, nobody's getting back to us. Please save us."

For all the latest developments on this story, listen live to Morning Edition now.

The broadcast interview was edited by Nina Kravinsky.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.