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Palestinian-American family stuck in Gaza despite pleas to US officials: ‘We feel abandoned’


(GAZA) — Haneen Okal, a Palestinian-American who lives in New Jersey, reunited in recent months with family in the Gaza Strip for the first time in more than 10 years, she told ABC News.

Now, Okal and her three young children — two of whom were born and raised in the U.S. — find themselves caught in the Israel-Hamas war despite pleas to U.S. officials in Israel, Okal said in an interview.

“It’s very terrifying because we all want to get out of here,” Okal said. “Unfortunately, the U.S. embassy is not helping. We feel abandoned.”

Okal’s husband, Abdulla, is at home in New Jersey pleading for help getting his family back to the U.S. safely.

On ABC News Live at 8:30 pm on Thursday, Oct. 12, ABC News’ James Longman, Matt Gutman and Ian Pannell look at the horrendous toll from Hamas’ massacre, the Israelis and Palestinians caught in middle and what comes next.

In the aftermath of an attack in Southern Israel carried out by Hamas militants on Saturday, Okal has called and emailed U.S. officials seeking assistance.

“They say, ‘We’re going to get you out. We’re going to call you back,"” Okal said. “We never hear from them.”

The Biden administration is in active discussions with Israel and Egypt about the safe passage of civilians in Gaza, including Americans, White House spokesperson John Kirby said on Wednesday, though no breakthrough has been reached on a humanitarian corridor or other action.

“Civilians are not to blame for what Hamas has done,” Kirby said. “They didn’t do anything wrong, and we continue to support safe passage.”

The White House did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment.

The State Department does not meticulously track the number of U.S. citizens in any given location. However, the Israeli government this summer estimated the number of Americans living in Gaza at between 100 and 130, and the Biden administration accepted that range. The territory plays host to a total of about 2.2 million people, more than half of whom are children.

On Wednesday, Gaza’s only power plant ran out of fuel, leaving the territory with no electricity or running water, officials said. More than 80% of Gazans live in poverty, according to the United Nations.

The militant group Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Saturday that has left at least 1,200 people dead and 2,900 others injured in Israel.

In Gaza, more than 1,400 people have died and another 6,200 have been wounded since Saturday as a result of Israeli airstrikes, according to the latest numbers from Palestinian officials. More than 445 children and 245 women are among those killed in Gaza.

On Tuesday, Okal and her children, the youngest of whom is two-months old, drove to the Rafah border crossing with Egypt as bombs fell “everywhere,” she said.

After Israel closed its lone border crossing with Gaza, the passage at Rafah stood as the last route out of the territory.

However, bombs dropped near the Rafah border crossing had forced the passage closed and left the area on the Gaza side of the border in disarray, Okal said.

“People were running and going back to the center of Gaza,” she said. “It was a very bad experience.”

The crisis faced by Okal and her family follows months of unsuccessful outreach to U.S. officials that had delayed a return home, she said.

During her visit in Gaza, Okal had given birth to her third child, leaving her in need of a U.S. passport for the newborn.

Nearly two months ago, Okal began trying to make an appointment with U.S. officials in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem to obtain the passport, she said.

However, travel constraints made the task nearly impossible, she said.

Palestinians in Gaza, including U.S. citizens like Okal, must apply at least 45 days before travel in order to obtain a permit that allows entry into Israel. Meanwhile, Okal said she could only reserve an appointment with a U.S. consulate in Israel as much as 48 hours in advance.

“Before the war, I tried so many times to call,” Okal said, noting that U.S. officials often directed her to a website. “It was really, really hard.”

As of now, the family remains hunkered down in Gaza, hoping to survive as Israel undertakes an ongoing series of airstrikes and assembles thousands of troops near the border for a possible ground invasion.

Okal’s children, aged 8, 2 and two months, are trying to make sense of the destruction being wrought, she said.

“It’s so sad seeing my kids going through this,” Okal said. “Put yourself in my situation. As a mother, I want my kids to be safe — not afraid of waking up the next day and not being alive.”

ABC News’ Emily Shapiro, Bill Hutchinson, Alexandra Hutzler and Shannon Crawford contributed reporting.

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