Bay Area woman trapped in Gaza sues U.S. officials over failure to evacuate U.S. citizens

A top priority is to get Americans out of Egypt: Department of State

An 81-year-old Daly City grandmother is suing the United States Secretaries of State and Defense, claiming they are violating the United States Constitution by not evacuating Palestinian Americans from besieged Gaza.

Dina Bseiso, a Bay Area resident and relative of the woman, said her family is disappointed that the US government “has left one of our own family members stranded” despite her US citizenship. “When we are lucky enough to get her on the phone, she tells us how scared she is that by the time she is evacuated, it’ll be too late for her.”

According to the lawsuit, the woman attempted to cross into Egypt from Gaza in recent weeks, but Egyptian authorities turned her away. This news organization is not naming the woman because her family and lawyers are concerned that she will be targeted by Israel’s military.

The woman is “currently trapped abroad in the Gaza Strip in an active war zone… under imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed this week in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2007, and has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, and the European Union. According to Israeli authorities, Hamas attacked Israel early last month, killing over 1,400 people and taking 200 hostages. Israel has responded with an ongoing bombardment and, in recent days, a ground invasion, which Palestinian officials claim has killed over 8,000 people.

The woman from Daly City “has lost any effective means of regular communication with the outside world,” according to the lawsuit filed by a San Francisco law firm.

She traveled to Gaza with her son in August to visit her childhood home and has received clearance to cross into Egypt at Rafah, but she is too “medically fragile” to travel alone, and she cannot obtain permission for her son, who is not a U.S. citizen, to enter Egypt, according to her lawyer, Ghassan Shamieh. “The family doesn’t know how she’s going to cross, because they’re afraid if she goes by herself that she won’t make it,” she said.

According to Shamieh, the woman has been moving between buildings to try to stay safe and was about 8 miles from the Rafah border crossing as of Wednesday.

The lawsuit, one of several filed across the country, claimed that Secretary of State Anthony Blinken failed to issue a “non-combatant evacuation order” to extricate Palestinian Americans from Gaza, despite the standard practice of evacuating US citizens and their families from war zones. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who works with Blinken on evacuations, has not done so for Palestinian Americans, and both officials have violated the woman’s Fifth Amendment right to equal protection, according to the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, the State Department last month advised US citizens not to travel to Gaza due to terrorism, civil unrest, and armed conflict. However, according to the lawsuit, US citizens, including the plaintiff, were already present.

“The Gaza Strip is encircled by an ongoing naval blockade, making sea escape impossible.” Egypt’s and Israel’s borders have been closed. “Active fighting is ongoing, obstructing routes from population centers to those border crossings,” according to the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, the US could condition continued foreign aid to Israel on Israel allowing US citizens in Gaza to flee via Israel or by boat. The lawsuit also claimed that the United States could use its influence in Egypt to assist its citizens fleeing across the Egyptian-Israeli border.

On Sunday, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN that American officials were working to get American citizens out of Gaza. “The Egyptians are prepared to allow American citizens and foreign nationals to come through the Rafah gate into Egypt,” Sullivan told reporters. “Hamas has been preventing their departure and making a series of demands.” Sullivan stated that he was unable to discuss the alleged Hamas demands publicly.

According to UC Berkeley political science professor Ron Hassner, Hamas’ reported obstruction of US citizens attempting to leave Gaza appears to be “intended to coerce the US into slowing Israel’s dismantling of Hamas.”

The State Department said Thursday that it does not comment on lawsuits in general, but that opening the Rafah border crossing from Gaza into Egypt for US citizens to leave Gaza has been a top priority, and they were among foreign nationals who left Gaza via Rafah on Wednesday. The department stated that it expects departures to continue and that it will work to ensure that US citizens and their families leave as safely as possible in the midst of a complicated situation. The Defense Department stated that it does not comment on ongoing lawsuits.

The lawsuit refers to ten previous conflicts in which the United States used military forces to evacuate its citizens. The final reference is to Afghanistan in 2021, when the United States evacuated thousands of Americans, including Afghan-Americans, as part of a military withdrawal. That operation failed when a suicide attack on US forces killed 13 personnel and 170 Afghan civilians, prompting Republican condemnation of President Biden’s withdrawal from the Afghanistan war.

The lawsuit claims that getting to border crossings to flee Gaza is hampered by active fighting. “U.S. citizens like the … plaintiff will be subject to assault, attack, bombardment, dismemberment, and death if they attempt to escape through any route out of population centers,” according to the complaint.

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