Thursday, August 9, 2007

A Tennessee man is appealing to the State Department for assistance in bringing home his wife and children, who have been trapped in the Gaza Strip since Hamas took it over two months ago.

“I am trying to cope with the situation,” said Hossam Bahour, a Palestinian-born U.S. citizen who moved with his family from Kuwait to the United States in 1981.

“I”m just praying they”ll be home soon,” he said in a telephone interview. “Each day, I keep myself occupied by going to work because if I sat home and thought about it, I”d go nuts.”

Mr. Bahour”s wife, Eman, and their three children — daughter Aml, 12; son Issam, 11; and son Mohamed, 6 — arrived in Gaza to visit Mr. Bahour”s mother on May 29, with the intention of leaving the area in mid-July. However, the Gaza-Israeli border was closed in June after Hamas militants seized control of the territory in several days of fighting.

When the Bahours” youngest son — scheduled to begin school in Nashville, Tenn., next week — fell ill with a severe stomach virus, the family attempted to cross the Israeli border last Friday so they could return to the U.S. for medical care.

Mr. Bahour said the family had hoped that the Israeli guards would let them through because they are U.S. citizens. But, he said, they were barred from crossing because they had not been issued a special permit by the U.S. Embassy in Israel.

After a five-hour wait at the border, Mr. Bahour said, the soldiers forced the family from the car and fired gunshots in the air as a “means of intimidating my wife and scaring our children.”

Mrs. Bahour and the children took a taxi back to their temporary Gaza home, where they have remained since. Mr. Bahour said he talks with his family via telephone three times each day.

“I”ve been told it could be anywhere from one month to even one year before my family is allowed to leave the country,” he said. “I”m getting conflicting answers from the American consul in Jerusalem and the U.S. State Department. It”s been very frustrating as I wait for a resolution.”

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he could not discuss the case out of concern for the privacy of those involved, but “of course, we”re going to take a look at the situation and see if there”s anything that we might do.”

Mr. McCormack added, “On a couple of occasions back in June, we went out to all American citizens in the Gaza and made it clear to them that we would help people get out. And in fact on two separate occasions, we did. …

“It is important to note that we did act on behalf of American citizens to help get out those people who at those times wanted to get out,” he said at yesterday”s daily briefing.

Israeli Embassy spokesman David Siegel said he could not comment without looking into the matter further.

An Islamic civil-liberties group has appealed to the State Department to work for the family”s release.

“We hope the family will have positive results very soon,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“Anytime American citizens are restricted from leaving any area, it”s a serious thing. We are asking for assistance from our government to help these U.S. citizens return home safely and in a quick manner.”

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