PiEnsylvania mother Noha Abuolba and her two teenage daughters were traveling south on a bus through Gaza on their way to the border. They didn't know if they could get through, since only a limited number of American citizens were allowed to leave each day, but after weeks of being trapped in a war zone, they were desperate enough to try.
As the family made their way along the beach road, what they believe was an Israeli airstrike hit their vehicle, followed by gunfire. Many people died around them. Eighteen-year-old Saja Abuolba suffered shrapnel wounds to her shoulder and back. Her sister, 17-year-old Farah, lost two fingers on her left hand.
The family had to walk more than a mile to the nearest hospital. There, Noha, 51, was filmed by an Al Jazeera reporter on the floor, crying and waving his American passports in despair.
“Here they are, our American citizenships, look what they've done to us!” she shouted, as medical staff treated her daughter's wounds in the background. “May God avenge us, here, see for yourself.”
This moment encapsulated the frustrations felt by many Palestinian-Americans trapped in Gaza and feeling abandoned by their government.
Ahmed Abuolba, Noha's son, was desperately trying to help his mother and siblings escape the war zone from their home in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. He and his father had repeatedly sought help from the State Department and US consulates in the region, to no avail.
“It makes us so furious. They treat us like we are second-class citizens,” said 26-year-old Ahmed The independent. “We have our citizenship, we have our papers, we have our passports, we work in this country, we pay our taxes like everyone else, but they treat us like we are nothing. Other people's lives matter more than our own.”
Noha Abuolba speaks to reporters at the hospital where she and her daughters were taken after the strike
The Abuolbas are among dozens of dual-citizen American families still stuck in Gaza after more than a month of relentless Israeli bombardment that has killed more than 11,000 Palestinians, including more than 4,500 children.
Ahmed, a microbiologist, saw the video of his mother crying on TV from the family home.
“I can't bear to see my mother like this,” Ahmed said. “It absolutely breaks my heart. Every time one of my brothers sees it, they just cry.”
Since the war began, those wishing to escape it have been following a chaotic process of evacuating Gaza that came about as a result of negotiations between USA, Israel, Egypt and Qatarwho acted as mediator with Hamas.
Americans must submit their names to the embassy in Jerusalem, which then forwards it to the other parties for approval. People must then check a Facebook page maintained by the Palestinian Authority daily to see if their names have made it onto the approved list, published in a Google document, to cross the border. Who gets approved and when is a murky and bureaucratic process, leaving US citizens in the dark.
The US State Department has insisted it is doing everything it can to help its citizens and their families flee the war-torn territory, but Palestinian-Americans recount that The independent weeks of confused communications with the agency and a chaotic process that left them trapped in the line of fire.
These delays almost cost the Abuolba family their lives.
The family is originally from Gaza, and all six of Noha and Karam's children were born there. But in 2010, after several successive wars, they came to the US as refugees seeking safety. This summer, Noha took Saja and Farah back to Gaza for the first time since they left as young children, to visit family and see their hometown. Saya had just graduated from high school.
Israel launched the war in Gaza in response to the deadly massacre of some 1,200 people by Hamas, which also took more than 200 hostages. Israeli forces quickly imposed a complete siege on the territory, preventing aid deliveries of food and medicine, in addition to cutting off water and electricity to the 2.3 million who call it home.
Ahmed said they first asked the State Department, which is responsible for US citizens abroad, for help on Oct. 8, the day after the war.
The first Americans with dual citizenship began leaving Gaza on Nov. 3, nearly a month after the war began. president of the USA Joe Biden told reporters in the Oval Office that 74 “American, dual citizens” were able to leave the area that day and that more would follow.
That same day, Noha received notification from the US consulate that her name would be on the list of names approved for evacuation at the Rafah crossing into Egypt. But when they checked the list, her daughter's names were not there. He didn't know if they would all be able to get through, but with the situation in Gaza becoming more dangerous, they decided to try, packing their bags and getting on a bus to the border. Then, disaster struck.
The IDF did not respond to a request for comment about the strike that hit the vehicle The independent. A video showing the aftermath of the attack that injured the Abuolba family, taken on al-Rashid Street the same day, showed at least seven bodies located on the road. Israel ordered all civilians to leave northern Gaza last month and its forces have targeted vehicles and ambulances traveling along the main roads through the territory.
Israel cut off Internet access to Gaza, so Ahmed did not receive word of the attack on his mother and brothers until the next day. He only knew that there had been a shooting and that they had suffered serious injuries. It took many more hours to confirm that they had not been killed. “It was absolutely terrifying,” he said. “My older sisters cried non-stop. We were very worried, we were constantly trying to find people to call, we were trying everything to make sure they were still alive.”
Since then, Ahmed's communication with his mother has been fleeting and sporadic. Most of Gaza is without power and the internet is down most of the time. Noha stays at the hospital with her daughters.
In an interview with CNN from her bed in Quds Hospital, broadcast on Tuesday, Farah recounted the attack on their vehicle and the loss of her fingers.
“I could give up. It dripped all my blood everywhere,” he says, as the sound of bombs echoes outside the hospital.
“When I sleep, I dream about what happened to me. I can hear the rockets when they hit me and my sister and my mom,” she tells the interviewer.
Since the attack, Farah's father, Karam, has been in almost constant communication with the US consulate in Jerusalem and the State Department. He also believes that their family is not getting proper help from the US government.
“We are US citizens. We are loyal to this country. Send the Red Cross,” he told CNN.
a State Department spokesman said The independent that the US does not control the Rafah border crossing into Egypt, and that the list is determined by a “series of negotiations and discussions on process, procedure and security control”.
“The situation remains fluid and there have been delays and periodic, unexpected closures. However, we expect evacuations to continue and we will not stop working to remove US citizens and their family members as safely as possible,” the spokesman added.
At the weekend, after weeks of waiting, Ahmed's brothers' names appeared on the list for evacuation – but the family were too scared to make the trip after their last attempt, and since then there have been further reports of ambulances being shot on the road in Rafah.
The the hospital where he was being treated announced on Sunday that it was “no longer operational” because it had no fuel for its generators. Ahmed was told on Tuesday that his mother and sisters had been evacuated from the hospital and were trying to get back to the border. Now he's waiting to find out if they succeeded.