(photo credit: AP)
An American family from Tennessee is stuck in the Gaza Strip, unable to leave since Hamas took over in June - and advocacy groups say they are not the only ones.
Hossam Bahour of Nashville said his wife and three children have been in the Middle East since May 23, visiting family in Egypt and in Gaza, but that their efforts to return home or even cross the border into Egypt or Israel have been thwarted.
The US State Department and the American consulate in Jerusalem have been asked to help, but nothing has worked so far, Bahour said Wednesday.
"My wife calls me every day crying, and the kids are stressed out and want to come back," said Bahour, a civil engineer who works for the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said there could be 100 US citizens who are similarly stuck in the Gaza Strip since Hamas wrested control of the area from the rival Fatah movement in June. But Bahour was the first to contact their organization, he said.
"The Israeli government won't let anyone out unless they have papers from the State Department. We're trying to get a hold of those papers," Hooper said.
The closure of the borders has also stranded about 6,000 Palestinians on the Egyptian side. About 100 people were allowed to return to their homes in late July through negotiations between Egypt and Israel, an arrangement Hamas denounced.
Bahour's wife, Eman Almagaida, is a US citizen, as are the children, who range in age from 6 to 12. Bahour is a naturalized citizen after living in the United States for 25 years.
Bahour said that his wife and children tried to cross the border into Israel on Friday, but were turned away because they did not have the right travel documents.
"My wife sat there for five hours, and they took the luggage and threw it across the border and started to shoot up in the air to scare them off," said Bahour.
He said the State Department directed him to the American consulate in Jerusalem, but consulate officials told him that the State Department would have to arrange travel across the border.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday that US officials were aware of Bahour's case but declined to comment on its specifics, citing privacy concerns.
"We are going to take a look at the situation and see what we can do," he said.
McCormack pointed out that the department has been warning Americans for months not to go to Gaza and advising those there to leave immediately. He said US diplomats and security personnel had arranged evacuations from Gaza for about 40 US citizens in late May and again in June.
A second State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter and tenuous security situation, said it was possible another group evacuation of Americans from Gaza might be arranged. The official would not say when such an operation might be mounted.
Neither McCormack nor the second official could say how many Americans remain in the Gaza Strip.
Israel closed the borders because weapons and money were being smuggled to Hamas, said diplomat Reda Mansour, who is based at the Israeli consulate in Atlanta. Israel wants to allow Palestinians back to their homes, but Hamas gunmen are blocking the gates, Mansour said.
"This shouldn't be a political issue. This is a humanitarian issue," Mansour said. "There are people who need medical treatment, and the Hamas operatives are basically holding them hostage in exchange for the recognition they want."