TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is calling for U.S. officials to protect American citizens trapped in the Gaza strip.
In a news conference in Tampa on Thursday, CAIR was joined by attorneys and clergy members as well as Floridians with American family members stuck in Gaza.
Attorney Hassan Shibly laid out two demands to the U.S. government from the organization: Ensure the safe return of all American citizens from Gaza and Israel and stop providing “weapons of death” to Israel that are used to kill Palestinians. CAIR also called for the release of hostages and a ceasefire.
“We have to ask for an immediate ceasefire so we can protect all lives, all civilians, all children,” CAIR-Florida Executive Director Imam Abdullah Jaber said. “And we can work to bring all American citizens home.”
Shibly is representing Hana Elnagar, a mother whose five Tampa-born children became trapped in Gaza while visiting family. As Elnagar explained, the children are all under 11 years old and attend school in the U.S. They were undergoing the lengthy legal process of leaving Gaza – Israel does not allow Palestinians to freely travel – when “all hell broke loose,” Shibly said.
“I know nothing of my kids,” Elnagar said. “I don’t even know if they are in a safe area.”
Elnagar reached out to her Congressional representative, the U.S. State Department and other federal officials for help. She said they could not provide information or assistance to help her children.
“I want help from the President, the Congress, the State Department,” Elnagar said. “Please do something for the Palestinians, the U.S. citizens in Gaza.”
Allendale United Methodist Church Reverend Andy Oliver read a statement from a local woman – wishing to stay anonymous under fear of retaliation – who is pleading for the safe return of her 88-year-old Palestinian-American father. In the letter, she said her father reported losing over a dozen family members since Oct. 7.
“He texted me, ‘Things are bad. People are dying. We lost 20 members of my family. I don’t want to talk about it now because it’s too painful’,” the statement read.
The woman claimed she reached out to the State Department for help and received silence in return, until she received a call one morning telling her to send her elderly father to the border with just 30 minutes notice.
“He is there waiting for help as an American citizen who believes in justice and freedom for all,” the letter stated. “I am begging you to help him.”
And a community organizer, Aida Mackic, read another message from someone she referred to as a ‘brother’ who came to CAIR’s offices. This person, Mackic said, has family in Gaza that is trying escape.
“That family wants to know,” Mackic said. “They have family members that are buried on these grounds. Ancestors that have been there. What are they going to do? What are they going to build on this land?”
Mackic said this man was afraid to speak out publicly because of all the injustices he said his community has been facing recently.
Both state and federal officials have taken steps to evacuate Americans from Israel following the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order on Oct. 10 freeing up $1.5 billion in state emergency funds to respond to the crisis.
Florida spent $4 million on a single flight from Tel Aviv to Tampa International Airport, Florida Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie told NewsNation on Monday. DeSantis appeared before a group of reporters to greet the 270 evacuees on the tarmac on Sunday night.
In a departure from the public stand taken by U.S. officials, DeSantis took a hard anti-Palestinian stance. Even some of his fellow Republicans have drawn distinctions between the aims of the Palestinian people and those of Hamas – the militant group that has ruled Gaza since 2007. No elections have taken place in Gaza since.
International civil rights organizations warned of an impending humanitarian crisis after the Israeli military ordered over one million people to immediately leave the northern portion of the Gaza strip under the looming threat of a ground invasion. On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced the U.S. secured a $100 million aid package for Gaza and the West Bank. CAIR said it is a mere fraction of the military aid sent to Israel.
DeSantis first suggested the U.S. should not accept refugees from Gaza while speaking at a campaign event in Iowa on Saturday, where he argued that they “are all antisemitic.”
“We are horrified to hear our governor accusing all civilians of Gaza of being antisemitic instead of pleading for their safety and making sure that every American is safe everywhere in the world,” Jaber said.
DeSantis doubled down on those statements in an interview on CBS’ Face the Nation. DeSantis said he believed Israel cutting off Gaza’s power and water was justified and that he doesn’t think Israel is “under an obligation to be providing water and these utilities” while hostages are held by Hamas. DeSantis also said that Palestinian schools teach “kids to hate Jews” and claimed Palestinian allies on American soil were cheering on the Oct. 7 attacks.
CAIR has received hundreds of reports from Florida Muslims concerning anti-Islam sentiment and violence, a spokesperson said. Shibly believes DeSantis is stoking the flames of hatred.
“DeSantis has blood on his hands,” Shibly said. “He’s misrepresenting the peaceful protests we had in Tampa, where people are simply calling for an end to the bloodshed.”
“Instead of talking about the community, he should talk to the community and mothers like Hana and call for protecting all human life,” Shibly continued.
The U.S. State Department has estimated approximately 500 to 600 American citizens live in Gaza.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.