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Abdulla Okal’s wife Haneen and their three young children – all American citizens – were at the Rafah border crossing on the verge of leaving Gaza on Tuesday when Israeli shells began to fall.
As the air strikes continued, Ms Okal realised she had little choice but to return to her parents’ house in the northern Gaza Strip.
It is a family's worst “nightmare”, Mr Okal said.
Encouraged by a recent Israeli decision to enable the entry of Palestinian Americans to Gaza, the New Jersey family decided to spend the summer in the enclave, partly so Ms Okal could give birth in her homeland, surrounded by her extended family, for the first time.
Mr Okal left Gaza on August 19 to return to the US and get his newborn son an American passport so the whole family could leave together. But before that could happen, Hamas launched a deadly attack on Israel on October 7, prompting Israel to declare war on Gaza.
The conflict has already claimed thousands of lives in Gaza and Israel.
“It’s very painful and I am under so much stress,” Mr Okal told The National from New Jersey. “I wish I was with them. At least we could die together. I am just constantly waiting for text messages to tell me they’re still alive.”
Ms Okal and her children, aged eight, two and two months, are among an unknown number of US citizens trapped in the Gaza Strip. They and their families back home are demanding that US President Joe Biden do more to stop the Israeli strikes and help them to leave Gaza.
“There is clear discrimination. There are many American citizens in Gaza – we’re just like everyone else,” Mr Okal said. He added that he has yet to receive any updates on the situation from the US embassy in Jerusalem.
“President Biden needs to listen to the other side, too.”
On Wednesday, US media reported that the US government was negotiating with Israel and Egypt to create safe passage for American citizens to leave Gaza.
“We do think it’s important that American citizens who are in Gaza be allowed to leave and it’s an issue that we are working on,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told CNN.
“We’re doing that quietly, like a lot of the diplomatic efforts we undertake. It’s not something that is productive to speak about publicly, but it is something we’re trying to achieve.”
Palestinians in Gaza have been struggling to find safety as Israeli warplanes bombard neighbourhoods, reducing them to rubble.
Israel has completely sealed off the tiny enclave, where 2.3 million people live, cutting off food, water, electricity, medicine and other supplies. The territory's only power plant ran out of fuel on Wednesday.
The White House on Wednesday said that US officials were holding discussions with Israel and Egypt to create a safe passage for civilians to leave Gaza.
"We support safe passages for civilians, civilians are not to blame for what Hamas has done," White House National Security spokesman John Kirby told journalists during a news conference.
"They didn't do anything wrong. And we continue to support safe passages."
On Tuesday, Mr Biden said a number of Americans are among the hostages that were taken by Hamas after the militants' surprise attack on Israel.
He said he was directing a team to share intelligence and send experts to help Israel in recovering the hostages. He made no mention of efforts to help Palestinian Americans leave the territory.
Dina Abu Dagga, another American citizen originally from Gaza, said she knows eight Americans who are currently trapped there.
Ms Abu Dagga says 17 of her family members, among them cousins and their children, have been killed in recent days.
“All the homes in my family’s neighbourhood were destroyed – there is no semblance of life left,” Ms Abu Dagga, who lives in Fresno, California, told The National.
“None of them are Hamas or support Hamas and the children, they’d done nothing wrong except to be born there. They just drank milk and wore diapers.”
Her 85-year old mother – who is in poor health – her brother and sister are still there, she said. They have had to move four times in search of safety.
“My husband and I sleep with our phones in our hands. I have the urge to scream,” Ms Abu Dagga said.
A day before, when she had not heard from her sister for several hours, she thought she had died.
“I feel powerless. I can’t do anything, and I don’t know if I will ever see my family again.”
Mr Okal said his wife and children have moved twice after being instructed to leave the Tel Al Zaatar neighbourhood where they had been staying.
They are now staying with a relative. If that neighbourhood becomes unsafe, they will have nowhere else to go.
“I am asking that my government stop this bloodshed and provide protection to the civilians and allow water, food and electricity to the people in Gaza,” he said.