Families of Detained Palestinian Americans Reject US Government Silence | Israel’s War on Gaza News
Washington, DC – “Receipt verified.” That’s the same message Yasmeen Elagha received from the United States government after two of her cousins - both Palestinian Americans – were detained by Israeli forces while sheltering near Khan Younis in southern Gaza.
Now, she is calling on US President Joe Biden’s administration to do more to ensure their safety and release them. Elagha said her two cousins, 18-year-old Borak Alagha and 20-year-old Hashem Alagha, are being held without charge.
“We have appealed to the US government,” explained Elagha, a law student at Northwestern University in Chicago. “The administration is completely failing in its duty. “
Hers is one of several families pushing for the protection of Palestinian Americans who have been taken into custody in Israel, as the war on Gaza drags on. They gathered in Washington, DC, for a press conference on Monday to push for action.
From the podium, Elagha explained that she learned about the abduction of her cousins in a phone call on February 7 with her aunt in Gaza. Through tears, her aunt described how Israeli soldiers broke into their shelter in al-Mowasi, near Khan Younis, and tied up the women and children.
The men met a different fate. Elagha’s aunt explained how the two cousins, along with their father, uncle and two other men were taken away. The soldiers left the shelter in the trash and the tires of the family’s car went flat, according to Elagha’s aunt. Neither man has been heard from since.
In the days since, Elagha has sent several emails, to the US embassies in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Cairo, as well as the US task force on Gaza. She only received the one response confirming that her application had been received.
The wait for information has been terrible, she said. “The minutes feel like hours, so it feels like it’s already been a month since they left.
Allegations of Aggravated Charges
Louisiana resident Suliman Hamed shared a similar experience at the event, hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
He said that his Palestinian American mother, Samaher Esmail, 46 years old, was taken into Israeli custody in the West Bank last Monday, and that he has not been able to speak to her since then.
He explained that he only received one call from an embassy official after her detention. Days have passed, but still, consular staff have not visited her where she is being held in Damon prison in Haifa, explained Hamed.
“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and now Monday again. No one from the US embassy has visited or spoken to my mother, a US citizen,” he said.
While she is waiting in prison, Hamed is worried about his mother’s health. Her lawyer told him she hasn’t had her medication since her arrest.
“It’s been seven days and she still hasn’t had a single medication. This has resulted in her condition getting worse,” said Hamad. “We have again asked the US embassy to send a consular officer to my mother, so that we can get an update on the situation her.”
His mother was arrested on charges of “social media incitement”, he explained. Hamed and his brother Ibrahim fear she was targeted in retaliation for a lawsuit she filed against the Israeli military, after allegedly being beaten during a traffic stop in 2022.
Rights groups have long accused Israeli authorities of using heavy-handed charges of “incitement” to get rid of Palestinians and restrict free speech.
But the total number of people arrested in the West Bank has increased since the war began on October 7. The Palestinian Prisoners Club, an advocacy group, has recorded 6,870 arrests since last week.
“Israel is trying to use my mother as an example,” said Hamed. “They are trying to scare Palestinians and Palestinian Americans. If this happens to a Palestinian American woman, it could happen to you. “
Reports of beatings, humiliating treatment
Since the war in Gaza began on October 7, allegations of disappearances, abuses and torture at the hands of Israeli forces have also been rampant.
In January, Ajith Sunghay, head of the United Nations Human Rights office for the occupied Palestinian territories, published a report where he collected accounts of detainees being “beaten, humiliated, ill-treated and what could be torture”.
Many were held between 35 and 55 days, Sunghay wrote. His report, and others, have raised fears among the families of those in custody.
“With everything we have learned happens to Palestinian men when they are detained by Israel, especially since October 7, we just think about the torture they are facing,” said Elagha about her cousins.
Meanwhile, Hamed recalled how his mother’s lawyer described bruises on her arms and back. He and his brother believe she was hit by Israeli forces. The lawyer told them that Esmail even lost consciousness twice during a prison interview.
Not following protocols
When asked about US citizens detained abroad, the State Department said it is working to ensure they are treated fairly and humanely.
“As you know, we have no higher priority than the safety and security of American citizens abroad,” spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters on February 8.
But Maria Kari, an immigration lawyer, told Al Jazeera that the State Department’s stance does not go far enough. She is working with Borak’s family and Hashem Alagha to file a lawsuit against the government.
She told Al Jazeera that it appears the Biden administration did not follow the proper protocol for situations where a US citizen is taken hostage or forcibly disappeared, either by a non-state or state actor. .
“Here, we have Israeli soldiers wrongfully detained [the Alagha siblings] in forced disappearances, all highly illegal and in direct violation of US domestic laws and international laws,” she said.
That situation should “require immediate consular access,” she explained. “The president has the right to be involved. The Department of State is supposed to coordinate all these teams. “
“And none of that has happened here,” she said, “which is shocking.”
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera on the issues.
Suliman and Ibrahim Hamed said the lack of response they received left them feeling “overwhelmed”. At a press conference on Monday, they called on the US to reconsider its unwavering support for Israel, as allegations of human rights abuses in Gaza and the West Bank continue to mount. up
The brothers are from Gretna, Louisiana – a city already plagued by violence. They share the same town as Tawfiq Ajaq, a 17-year-old Palestinian American who was killed in a January shooting involving an Israeli settler and an off-duty police officer in the West Bank.
Hamed’s sisters questioned whether US support for Israel negates community justice.
“We, as tax paying Americans, are funding this prison not only from my mother but from innocent people, especially the Palestinians,” Ibrahim said.
“If we were white Christians or Israeli Americans, would the embassy have responded more quickly?” Suliman added. “This is the question I have asked myself every day. “