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War on Gaza: Biden slammed over failure to help US nationals abducted by Israel

Hashem Alagha, Borak Alagha and their father Ahmed were taken by Israeli forces in Khan Younis last week, and their family says the US has not done enough to secure their release

The US-based family of two Palestinian-American brothers and their father, a Canadian national, have accused the Biden administration of not doing enough to secure the release of their relatives after they were detained by the Israeli military in the besieged Gaza Strip eight days ago.  

Hashem Alagha, 20, Borak Alagha, 18, their 48-year-old father, Ahmed Alagha, as well as others, were taken by Israeli forces in al-Mawasi near Khan Younis on 7 February, after the Israeli army conducted a raid on the shelter they were seeking refuge in.

Their US-based extended family told Middle East Eye that despite contacting the US State Department and US consular offices for help and assistance, they had received no information on their status or well-being. 

"We still don't know where any of the hostages are," Bathool Alagha, a cousin to both Hashem and Borak, told MEE on Wednesday.

"We haven't heard anything about them for over a week," Bathool added.

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According to the family, Israeli soldiers stormed the shelter they were residing in, tied up the women and children and detained several other men, including Ahmed's elder brother who suffers from a mental disability. 

"They beat my 12-year-old cousin in the kitchen. And this is while my aunt was watching. And they detained all of the men," Yasmeen Elagha, Bathool's sister, told MEE.

Israel declared al-Mawasi a "humanitarian zone" in late October, but several Palestinians have been killed in air strikes near the tiny slither of land which is just 14km long and 1km wide.

Yasmeen said the US government's slow and uncommitted response had made them feel "like second-class citizens".

On Wednesday, a spokesperson from the State Department denied that the US government was not taking the matter seriously. 

'What we have seen from the Biden administration is the complete disregard for Palestinians'

- Noura Erakat, human rights lawyer

In response to a series of questions from MEE, the spokesperson said the US government was "aware of the detention of these two US citizens and are monitoring the situation closely".

"Consular officials have been in contact with the family, and we continue to seek more information from our Israeli counterparts," the spokesperson said. 

Asked if they had any further information on their whereabouts or why the Palestinian Americans were being held by the Israeli military, the State Department said it generally did "not share information with the media about private US citizens absent their written consent".

"However, this does not mean that consular officers on the ground are not engaged in the matter. In all situations, we take seriously our commitment to assist US citizens abroad," the spokesperson said.  

The family, however, told MEE that no consular official has reached out to the family.

Meanwhile, Edward Mitchell, deputy director at the Council of American Islamic Relations (Cair), rubbished the State Department's efforts, calling them "woeful".

"The State Department needs to stop with the vague promises to look into these attacks. It needs to take concrete action to hold the Israeli government accountable for attacking American citizens as well as Palestinian civilians in general," Mitchell told MEE.

Enforced disappearances 

Since the war erupted after the Hamas-led attacks on southern Israel, which saw around 1,200 Israelis killed and around 200 taken as captives back to Gaza, at least 28,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel's military onslaught and bombardment.

Backed by the US and UK, Israel has bombed homes, hospitals, schools, and refugee camps. There have also been several instances of enforced disappearances of Palestinians in both Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

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On February 5, Samaher Esmail, a 46-year-old Palestinian-American grandmother and cancer patient, was dragged out of her home and held by the Israeli military for "incitement on social media".

Her son, Ibrahim Esmail, from Gretna Louisiana, told a news conference in Washington on Monday that upon visiting her in prison, her lawyer found his mother had been beaten and was in poor health.

He said the US embassy in Israel had not bothered to visit and check up on her.

In January, Tawfic Abdel Jabbar, a Palestinian-American teenager, also from Gretna, Louisiana, was shot dead by Israeli forces as he drove a pickup truck in the occupied West Bank. 

"The fact that the Israelis can kidnap two Americans and not tell anyone what they have done with them and not face any repercussions from the American government is exactly the kind of behaviour that emboldens [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu to go to further extremes," Mitchell said.

Mitchell said the message appears to be loud and clear: "If American citizens are not safe, then clearly other Palestinians are not safe."

'Rising danger'

Legal scholars say the serial targeting of Palestinian Americans as well as the refusal of the US State Department to hold Israel accountable was a manifestation of the systematic dehumanisation of Palestinian life in both Palestine and in the US.

In May 2021, an Israeli sniper shot and killed Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

Despite a mountain of evidence, there has been no attempt by the US to hold Israel accountable, and this created a culture of impunity, experts say.

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"What we have seen from the Biden administration is the complete disregard for Palestinians - regardless of their status as Palestinians," Noura Erakat, a Palestinian-American human rights lawyer and academic, told MEE.

"We have also seen Palestinian Americans who are stranded in Gaza who have not been effectively evacuated or given passage, but instead told by the State Department that they would receive water and other humanitarian goods if they sit tight.

"The disregard for Palestinian life has also manifested in the rising danger for Palestinians, Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans who have been subject to a number of hate crimes and violent attacks," Erakat said.

"The disregard is endemic. It manifests in Palestine. It manifests in the United States," Erakat added.

The Alagha family sued the Biden administration in December, claiming the government did not do enough to evacuate their US relatives stuck in Gaza, as it did for Israeli dual nationals after the war began.

The two brothers, born in the Chicago area, have not yet been cleared to leave Gaza. Americans listed by the US as wanting to leave Gaza at the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing must be approved by both Israel and Egypt.

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