Washington, DC – “Confirmed receipt.” That is the only message Yasmeen Elagha received from the United States government after two of her cousins — both Palestinian Americans — were detained by Israeli forces as they sheltered near Khan Younis in southern Gaza.
Now, she is calling on the administration of US President Joe Biden to do more to assure their safety and secure their release. Elagha said her two cousins, 18-year-old Borak Alagha and 20-year-old Hashem Alagha, are being held without charge.
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“We’ve pleaded with the US government,” Elagha, a law student at Northwestern University in Chicago, explained. “The administration is fully failing in its duty.”
Her concerns were echoed at a news conference on Monday in Washington, DC, where Palestinian American family members pressed for action from the Biden administration, as the war in Gaza stretches on.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Elagha explained that she learned of her cousins’ abduction in a February 7 phone call with her aunt in Gaza. Through tears, her aunt recounted 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 described how the two cousins, along with their father, their uncle and two other male relatives were all taken away. The soldiers left the shelter trashed and the family’s car tyres slashed, according to Elagha’s aunt. None of the men have been heard from since.
In the days since, Elagha has sent a flurry of emails, to US embassies in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Cairo, as well as a US task force on Gaza. She has received only the one reply confirming her appeal had been received.
The wait for information has been excruciating, she said. “The minutes feel like hours, so it feels like it’s been already a month since they’ve been gone.”
Allegations of trumped-up charges
Suliman Hamed, a Louisiana resident, shared a similar experience at Monday’s event, hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
He said his Palestinian American mother, 46-year-old Samaher Esmail, was taken into Israeli custody in the occupied West Bank last Monday, and he has not been able to speak with her since.
He explained he has only received one call from an embassy official in the aftermath of her detention. Days have passed, but still, consular staff have not visited her where she is being held at the Damon prison in Haifa, Hamed explained.
“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and now Monday again. Nobody from the US embassy has visited or spoken with my mother, a US citizen,” he said.
While she waits in prison, Hamed worries about his mother’s health. Her lawyer told him that she has not received her medication since she was arrested.
“It’s been seven days and she still has not received a single medication. This has resulted in her condition worsening greatly,” Hamad said. “We have repeatedly asked the US embassy to send a consular officer to my mom, so we can get an update on her condition.”
His mother was arrested on allegations of “incitement on social media”, 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 trumped-up charges of “incitement” to crack down on Palestinians and suppress free speech.
But arrests overall in the occupied West Bank have surged since the start of the war on October 7. The Palestinian Prisoners Club, an advocacy organisation, has documented 6,870 detentions as of last week.
“Israel is trying to use my mother as an example,” said Hamed. “They’re trying to scare Palestinians and Palestinian Americans. If this can happen to a Palestinian American woman, this could happen to you.”
Reports of beatings, humiliating treatment
Since the start of the war in Gaza on October 7, allegations of enforced disappearances, abuses and torture at the hands of Israeli forces have also been rampant.
In January, Ajith Sunghay, the 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, subjected to ill-treatment and to what may amount to torture”.
Many were held between 35 and 55 days, Sunghay wrote. His report, and others, have sparked fears among the families of those in custody.
“With everything we’ve learned happens to Palestinian men when they’re detained by Israel, especially since October 7, we’re just imagining the torture that they are facing,” Elagha said of her cousins.
Hamed, meanwhile, recalled how his mother’s lawyer described bruises on her arms and back. He and his brother believe she was beaten by Israeli forces. The lawyer told them that Esmail even lost consciousness twice during a prison interview.
Not following protocols
When asked about the US citizens detained overseas, the State Department said it is working to ensure their fair and humane treatment.
“As you know, we have no higher priority than the safety and security of American citizens overseas,” spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters on February 8.
But Maria Kari, an immigration lawyer, told Al Jazeera the State Department’s stance does not go far enough. She is working with the family of Borak and Hashem Alagha to file a lawsuit against the government.
She told Al Jazeera the Biden administration appears to have not followed 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 having wrongly detained [the Alagha siblings] in an enforced disappearance, all very illegal and in direct contravention of both domestic US laws and international laws,” she said.
That situation should “require consular access right away”, she explained. “The president’s supposed to be engaged. The State Department’s supposed to be coordinating all of these teams.”
“And none of that has happened here,” she added, “which is appalling.”
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera about the cases.
Suliman and Ibrahim Hamed said the lack of response they received left them feeling “brushed over”. At Monday’s news conference, 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.
The brothers are from Gretna, Louisiana — a city already scarred by the violence. Theirs is the same hometown 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 occupied West Bank.
The Hamed siblings questioned whether the US’s backing of Israel is denying their community justice.
“We, as taxpaying Americans, are funding this imprisonment of not just my mother but of innocent people, especially the Palestinians,” said Ibrahim.
“If we were white Christian or Israeli Americans, would the embassy have responded sooner?” Suliman added. “This is the question I have asked myself on a daily basis.”