Two Palestinian American citizens with Chicago-area roots were taken by Israeli soldiers in an early morning raid on their shelter in Gaza on Thursday, a family member said, months after U.S. officials approved them for evacuation but have since failed to secure their exit.
Their cousin in west suburban Chicago had been pleading with U.S. officials to secure their evacuation. She and other Americans have even sued the State Department for alleged disparate treatment of Palestinian U.S. citizens trying to flee Israel’s bombardment of Gaza compared to Israeli Americans who were quickly helped after the Oct. 7 attacks by the militant group Hamas.
Borak and Hashem Alagha, ages 18 and 20, were born and raised in west suburban Lombard before their family moved to Canada and eventually Gaza. They’re dual American-Canadian citizens.
In the last four months, Israeli attacks have destroyed their home in Gaza, then a second home where they had taken shelter. Most recently, they were among 28 relatives sheltering in a two-bedroom, one-bath home in the Al-Mawasi neighborhood near Khan Younis, an area to which the Israeli military had directed Palestinians to flee for safety.
They’ve been low on food, drinking dirty water and shaken by daily Israeli airstrikes there. Hashem has a broken leg and needs a wheelchair, the family said, and Borak underwent two recent gastrointestinal surgeries but hasn’t fully healed because the health system in Gaza has been largely destroyed.
It’s from that home that they were taken by Israeli soldiers early Thursday morning, said their cousin Yasmeen Elagha, a Northwestern University law student who lives in west suburban Oakbrook Terrace.
Yasmeen Elagha got a call from her aunt — Borak and Hashem’s mother — late Wednesday night in Chicago, when it was early in the morning in Gaza.
“She was crying hysterically; her voice was so shaky,” Yasmeen Elagha said. “And she told me it was like 5 a.m. their time that Israeli soldiers basically broke their door down while they were sleeping.”
The soldiers then took all six men in the home, she said, including Borak and Hashem, their Canadian-citizen dad, Ahmed, and their mentally disabled uncle, Maen. Borak is the youngest of the men, and the oldest is another uncle who’s 59. The family doesn’t have contact with the men or know where they were taken. Another 14 men from the family were taken from other areas in Khan Younis.
The soldiers confiscated all the phones and electronics in the house except for Borak’s, which he hid, the family said. That phone is now the family’s only method of communication.
The brothers’ mother, Samar Alagha, responded to a reporter’s messages on WhatsApp on Thursday. She said the Israeli solders tied up and blindfolded the women and children in the house and had them face a wall. They were then left outside until neighbors found and untied them.
“My feelings died,” she wrote in Arabic. “They burned my blood. An army without mercy.
“I do not find anything safe. Everything is permissible for death, destruction, intimidation and arrest.”
Yasmeen Elagha said her aunt told her “the soldiers fully destroyed the house on the inside.”
“They broke down the doors, they slashed the tires on their cars, so they have no mode of transportation,” Yasmeen Elagha said.
White House: ‘We take this seriously’
Israeli military officials told the Chicago Sun-Times they were “still looking into it.”
A State Department spokesperson said Thursday morning officials were “aware” of the situation and “seeking additional information.”
“The Department of State has no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas,” the spokesperson said.
Asked about the brothers at a media briefing Thursday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the administration was “just processing these reports right now.”
“We’re obviously talking to our Israeli counterparts about this to get more information about what happened here,” Kirby said. “I mean, we take this seriously as you would expect we would.”
Global Affairs Canada, the State Department equivalent in that country, said it was also aware of “missing” Canadian citizens in Gaza and was “providing consular assistance to the family.”
Yasmeen Elagha said her family’s worst fears have come true and blamed the U.S. government for not taking more urgent action to protect the lives of American citizens.
U.S. officials already approved the family — including the two brothers, their three younger sisters, their parents and their uncle — for evacuation back in December. But their four attempts to exit at the Rafah Crossing at the Egyptian border have been denied because their names haven’t been added to an official evacuation list. The family has demanded the United States put more pressure on Israeli and Egyptian officials to help them leave.
“I’ve been screaming this at the top of my lungs for the past few months,” Yasmeen Elagha said. “And I told the U.S. government every step of the way, ‘Something will happen. They are already in danger, and they will be put in even greater danger if you don’t act.’”
“Every step of the way I’ve been met with total apathy,” Yasmeen Elagha said.
She wrote to U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth on Thursday morning, as well as U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, who represents her district in the western suburbs. Her calls to a U.S. task force for Gaza produced no results, and the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem told her, “There’s a war going on, so we can’t control what happens on the ground,” she said.
She said it was “insulting” to see President Joe Biden tell foreign governments last week, “If you harm an American, we will respond,” as the United States carried out strikes in Iraq and Syria in response to the killing of three American soldiers on the Jordan-Syria border.
“He’s been on notice that Americans have been directly affected, and he’s done absolutely nothing,” Yasmeen Elagha said. “It’s not a question of, ‘If you touch American lives.’ American lives have already been touched.”
A Durbin spokesperson said the senator’s office had “received an influx of requests, including this family, seeking help for constituents and loved ones caught in the crossfire of the crisis in Gaza,” and staff were doing their “best to provide support and resources to assist in bringing those in danger to safety.”
Duckworth’s office “directly escalated the necessary information to senior officials at the U.S. State Department” on Thursday, a spokesman said, “so they can ensure the appropriate authorities in Egypt, Israel and Gaza are aware of this case and can assist Borak and Hashem.”
Casten didn’t respond to requests for comment. He said last month through a spokesperson that he would “continue to reiterate” to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the U.S. “must do everything in our power to bring folks home.”
Borak and Hashem’s mother is now frantically trying to find shelter for her three daughters ages 14, 12 and 8, because she fears the home in which they’ve been sheltering could be further targeted.
The family is particularly worried about their mentally disabled uncle, who now is in Israeli custody without his medication. He had already been experiencing “visceral reactions” to the trauma he has faced the last few months, Yasmeen Elagha said, and they fear what the Israeli soldiers will do to him if he doesn’t cooperate.
“When he’s not on his medication, he’s difficult to manage,” she said. “So my worry is that because he won’t be compliant with what the Israeli soldiers are asking, they’ll kill him.
“He’s fully dependent on others for survival,” Yasmeen Elagha said. “He doesn’t have a caretaker; he’s in this extremely traumatic situation.”
The United Nations has accused Israel of taking thousands of men from their homes and shelters in Gaza in recent months, in some cases holding them for weeks while soldiers beat, blindfold and undress them, according to Reuters. Some men have later been released in diapers.
Nearly 28,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed in the ongoing Israeli bombardment of Gaza, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. About 1,200 Israelis were killed in the Hamas attack in Israel on Oct. 7. The militant group also took about 250 hostages; six American citizens are among those still held captive.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations said it called on the Biden administration Thursday to “demand the release of two U.S. citizens reportedly kidnapped overnight in Gaza by Israeli forces.” CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad reiterated calls for a cease-fire and said U.S. support of Israel is “endangering the Americans who are trapped or held captive in Gaza.”
Another U.S. citizen from New Orleans, grandmother Samaher Esmail, was arrested by the Israeli military in the West Bank this week on suspicion of “incitement on social media” during raids on her Palestinian village of Silwad. Her family in the U.S. said she was blindfolded, handcuffed and beaten.
“I have been in contact with the American Embassy and the State Department to inquire why a U.S. citizen is being held,” U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, D-La., wrote on social media. “I am praying for her safety.”
Contributing: Lynn Sweet