By William Melhado, The Texas Tribune
“Relatives of Texans, Jewish and Muslim, remain trapped in Gaza” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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When Chen Dori-Roberts watched the TikTok video, his first thought was that it looked like a Hollywood movie filmed in a far-away land. The video showed several women sitting in a low vehicle, surrounded by armed militants.
That’s when the Leander resident recognized one of the women in the video. It was his 34-year-old cousin, Doron Katz Asher.
“I didn’t realize at the beginning that’s her because it was nothing like I’ve ever seen her,” Dori-Roberts said. “And then you can see my aunt and another person hugging the little girls.” The girls, 2 and 4, are Asher’s daughters, who live with Dori-Roberts’ cousin and her husband in Israel.
On Oct. 7, Asher and her daughters were visiting Asher’s mother in southern Israel, near its border with the Gaza Strip, when Hamas militants stormed their kibbutz, taking the family hostage.
The video, which appeared to be posted on social media by Hamas militants, broadcast some of the atrocities committed as part of a violent terrorist attack that split open a decades-old conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Two weeks later, Texans’ families are still trapped in the region while others are being held hostage by Hamas militants, who attacked Israel in a surprise attack on Oct. 7, killing over 1,400 people, including children.
In response, Israel launched airstrikes and placed Gaza under siege, cutting off access to water, food and medical supplies to over two million people, which has resulted in a humanitarian crisis among the civilians living in the area.
The relatives of Texans who are unable to leave the war zone are asking for more support from the U.S. Department of State to bring their loved ones home.
Mai Abushaaban, a Palestinian American, is one of them.
Her mother and sister traveled to Gaza from Sugar Land in August to visit family and care for Abushaaban’s elderly grandfather. But when war broke out in response to Hamas’ attack — with airstrikes raining down on the 140-square-mile area of Gaza, where much of Abushaaban’s family lives — she feared for her mother and sister’s lives.
As of Wednesday, the death toll in Gaza has surpassed 6,000, according to Palestinian authorities.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Hamas had released two American hostages, a mother and her daughter, who are also Israeli citizens. Blinken said 10 additional remain unaccounted for in the conflict, but some of which are being held by Hamas among the estimated 200 hostages.
A group of Americans, 32 members of the Nuestra Señora De Guadalupe church in Cactus, about 60 miles north of Amarillo, returned to Texas last week after becoming stranded during a pilgrimage to Israel, according to U.S. Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Amarillo.
The group traveled to Jordan when they could not find a secure exit from Israel and began to run low on medical supplies needed by some members of the group, Jackson said in a statement last week.
In a statement shared by Jackson’s office, the church’s bishop expressed gratitude for the Congressman’s help in getting them back to the country.
The church did not respond last week to an inquiry seeking more information.
Andrew Mahaleris, a spokesperson for Abbott’s office, said that Texas officials have been talking with the federal government, nonprofits and the Consulate General of Israel about the status of Texans impacted by the Hamas attack.
“While we continue to work with the Consulate General of Israel, we were advised as recently as October 17 that all Texans seeking to evacuate have been able to do so. If any Texan still needs to get home from Israel, the state is prepared to accommodate and provide any necessary support,” Mahaleris said.
Mahaleris did not respond to subsequent questions about Texans stuck in Gaza.The governor’s office did not answer a question about how many Texans are trapped in Gaza.
When Dori-Roberts woke up the morning of Oct. 8, he grabbed his phone and sent photos of his wife and daughters attending a Dallas concert from the previous night to his relatives in Israel.
“‘What’s up with the pictures? We’re at war,’” came the response.
Over the next several hours, Dori-Roberts learned that his aunt, cousin and her two young daughters had been taken hostage midmorning the previous day after Hamas militants stormed the settlement where they were staying.
Asher, his cousin, had traveled to southern Israel with her two daughters, Aviv, 2, and Raz, 4, for the Jewish holiday Shemini Atzeret, to visit her mother Efrat Katz, 67, and her mother’s partner, Gadi Moses, 79.
Instead of enjoying the weekend, Asher and her family were awakened by rockets at 6:30 a.m. and told to hide and barricade themselves inside of the safe room in their home. Soon after, they received WhatsApp messages alerting them that Hamas militants had broken through the kibbutz gate and were ransacking homes.
Asher sent messages to family about how terrified she was, hiding in the safe room with her mother and daughters, Dori-Roberts learned later. But four hours after the warning sirens had jolted Asher and her family awake, all communication stopped.
Last week, Dori-Roberts learned that his aunt was among the dead. He still doesn’t know the whereabouts of the rest of his family.
“I’m looking forward to that day that I’ll be able to look at it as a very, very distant memory. But right now, it’s hour by hour, day by day, trying to live through this, trying to be a parent, trying to hug your kids, trying to go to work, trying to be a good dad, a good partner,” he said.
He said that “waves and waves and waves” of bad news have muddled Dori-Roberts’ ability to process what’s happened within the past two weeks.
The layers of Dori-Roberts’ grief has been intensified by the online debate surrounding the fraught, decades-old conflict. The complexity of the conflict, he said, is being reduced to sweeping opinions without sufficient nuance and understanding.
“To see people that are not educated, literally no clue about this conflict because it’s so complicated, taking a sign blindly,” Dori-Roberts said about the position of many liberals in the U.S. “You can support Palestine but not support terror.”
Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott urged Texas schools to use resources from the Texas Education Agency to teach students about the Israel-Hamas war, in an effort to prevent misinformation and prejudice against the Jewish community. Gov. Dan Patrick strongly condemned antisemitism in the Texas GOP on Monday and announced that his campaign is purchasing $3 million in Israel bonds — the same amount that Patrick received earlier this year from Defend Texas Liberty, a group that recently hosted white supremacist Nick Fuentes.
Dori-Roberts said that he does not necessarily support a ground invasion of Gaza and that he doesn’t want more innocent people to lose their lives, but that Hamas must be stopped from perpetrating more violence. He wants the immediate, unconditional return of his family members.
When Abushaaban heard about Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, she knew from her time living and working in Gaza that it would soon become impossible to escape the sliver of land where the majority of her mother’s family lived.
Two months prior to the attack, Abushaaban’s mother and sister traveled to Gaza to help care for her sick grandfather. But with Gaza engulfed in violence, “Where were they going to flee?” the 22-year-old graduate student asked from Sugar Land, where she lives with her parents and four siblings. “What would safety look like for them?”
Every day Abushaaban tries to talk with her mother. Some days she is successful. Some days she has to call eight or nine times throughout the day to reach her. Some days she can’t reach her at all.
Even when Gaza isn’t actively under siege it’s difficult to get reliable cellphone service, Abushaaban said. And the only electricity comes from gas-powered generators, but fuel — like water — is scarce. Even more so now.
On Oct. 13, Israel told over 1 million Palestinians to evacuate the northern part of Gaza, where Abushaaban’s mother and younger sister were staying, in advance of an anticipated ground invasion. The omnipresent threat of airstrikes made the journey perilous, Abushaaban and her mother said their goodbyes over the phone knowing the risk of staying was greater than attempting to go south.
“I’m replaying it through my head right now and it’s giving me chills,” Abushaaban recalled of that phone call with her family.
One week later, Abushaaban had just hung up with her mother when she spoke with The Texas Tribune. Her mother and sister are staying with about 70 others who fled south in two small apartments near the border with Egypt.
“My mom and sister are caught between two flames,” she said — torn between the safety of Texas and the burden of leaving family behind in Gaza.
Abushaaban said her mother and sister have tried getting out of Gaza — making the perilous journey and then waiting at the Raffa crossing, exposed to Israel’s bombs — not once, but twice. But both times they tried crossing the border, they were turned away. At least 400 Americans are trapped in the Gaza Strip.
Abushaaban criticized the U.S. Department of State for prioritizing Americans who are in Israel, over those trapped in Gaza. She said she’s received very minimal support or guidance from the federal government.
“It almost seems as if they’re indifferent to the fear that we’re experiencing, not only us but our family members who are in Gaza who are also American citizens,” she said. “It really makes Palestinian Americans feel that they’re like they’re second-class citizens in a country that we also call home.”
A State Department spokesperson said the federal agency cannot comment on specific cases but they have made calls to U.S. citizens stuck in Gaza and their immediate family members.
“We continue to work urgently in partnership with Egypt and Israel to facilitate the ability of U.S. citizens and their immediate family members to exit Gaza safely and travel via Egypt to their final destinations,” the spokesperson said.
Abushaaban sees the indifference of the federal government as a product of the decades of Israeli occupation of Gaza, which has tolerated the suffering of Palestinians.
“If we truly value human life and condemn the loss of civilian life, we have to hold that standard to both sides — not just one,” Abushaaban said.
Reporter Alejandro Serrano contributed to this story.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/10/26/texas-israel-gaza-hostage-seige/.
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