Washington, DC – When an Israeli air raid hit the building next to the house where he was staying in Gaza, Zakaria Alarayshi felt like he experienced death while still alive.
“We were confused and huddled together. It was death, death. You feel like you’ve died from the impact and the fear. I am a grown man, and I cried from the fear. Imagine what the children are going through. We had no idea what to do,” he told Al Jazeera in a phone interview.
Alarayshi and his wife Laila Alarayshi are two of the hundreds of United States citizens trapped in the Gaza Strip amid the fighting between Israel and Hamas, which has killed thousands of people and levelled entire neighbourhoods in the Palestinian territory.
The Alarayshis had only planned on stopping in Gaza for several weeks to visit family. Now, their stay is indefinite, as the ongoing hostilities make travel perilous and border restrictions limit their options for escape.
Last week, the couple — residents of Livonia, Michigan — filed a lawsuit against the administration of President Joe Biden to compel the US government to evacuate Americans from the besieged strip.
Alarayshi, who said he voted for Biden in 2020, hopes the lawsuit will urge the US president to treat all Americans equally, no matter which side of the Gaza border they are on. The US has evacuated thousands of its citizens out of neighbouring Israel, including on a cruise ship.
“I worked three jobs. I built a business. I pay taxes. I did everything right to build a better future for myself and my family and live honourably. But now I feel like a second-class citizen. President Biden should take care of everyone,” he said.
Biden is arriving in Israel on Wednesday, where he is expected to reiterate unwavering support for the US ally.
Nabih Ayad, a lawyer and founder of the Arab American Civil Rights League (ACRL), a Michigan-based advocacy group involved in the lawsuit, said the US government has a duty to protect its citizens abroad.
“The fact that you are evacuating US citizens of Israeli descent but not US citizens of Palestinian descent creates a problem,” Ayad told Al Jazeera. The lawsuit accuses the US government of violating constitutional provisions that ensure equality under the law.
Ayad acknowledged that the security situation in Gaza is dire, but he said the US has leverage over Israel and Egypt, two allies that border the Palestinian territory and can help with evacuations.
“Again, who’s doing the bombing? What weapons are they using? It’s Israel, our friend, that’s going to be doing the bombing, using United States weapons, and they have control of all those borders,” he said.
Israel has ordered more than 1 million Palestinians to leave the northern part of Gaza, but that has not spared the strip’s southern region from a steady stream of bombardment. Israeli air raids have killed dozens in the southern cities of Khan Yunis and Rafah this week.
Khan Yunis is where Alarayshi and his wife currently reside, in order to be closer to the Rafah crossing, a vital thoroughfare into Egypt. But while Alarayshi has approached the border several times, he said US citizens have yet to receive safe passage across. The couple remain stuck.
Meanwhile, in Khan Yunis, they not only contend with daily air strikes, but the humanitarian situation is horrendous, Alarayshi said.
“There is no life. I go to the shop; there is nothing to eat,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We eat once every 24 hours. We get cookies. We get a sandwich with a slice of cheese to eat. We used to buy water. Now there is no water, so we have to drink salty [tap] water. I have diabetes, hypertension and cholesterol. I’m in a dreadful state.”
Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who represents a Michigan district, spoke about the couple’s suffering during a briefing with reporters on Monday.
“I was on the phone with him at 1am making sure that he could get to the Egyptian border. They waited there for six hours, and nothing,” Tlaib said.
‘No higher priority’
The US State Department said it “has no higher priority than the safety and security of US citizens overseas”.
“US citizens in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank in need of assistance should complete the crisis intake form on travel.state.gov,” a State Department spokesperson told Al Jazeera in a statement.
“We will continue to provide updates to US citizens, including departure assistance, as information becomes available.”
The statement did not address Al Jazeera’s question on whether the US has a plan to get Americans out of Gaza.
Mariam Charara, the executive director of the ACRL, said the group has received the “same boilerplate responses” from US officials but no concrete action.
Charara, who has been in close touch with the Alarayshis, described them as an “amazing” family living the American dream.
But for now, the couple is not sure if they will survive. The home where the Alarayshis were staying in Gaza City was bombed after they left it.
“When the bomb drops, it shakes the entire neighbourhood, and its sound makes you jump out of your body. It’s very bad. My wife and I are not sure whether we will make it out of Khan Yunis. I don’t know,” Alarayshi said.