U.S. citizens living in Israel said they felt “trapped,” “abandoned,” and “held hostage” following the news that the Tel Aviv Branch Office of the U.S. Embassy had suspended American Citizens Services, canceling all appointments due to the ongoing rocket attacks in the conflict between Israel and Hamas and leaving thousands without valid U.S. passports.
The decision compounds an already dire situation for American citizens living in Israel and the West Bank in which there is an estimated backlog of more than 15,000 cases of citizens waiting to renew passports for minor children and register the births of babies born over the past year, which must be done in person according to State Department regulations.
The situation was caused by the near-complete closure of the Jerusalem embassy and the Tel Aviv Branch Office for more than eight months during the coronavirus pandemic and the continued restriction of the number of applicants permitted in waiting rooms due to Israel’s Health Ministry’s regulations even after most Israelis were vaccinated against COVID-19.
On Tuesday, it was officially announced that all consular services in Tel Aviv were being suspended and that the embassy in Jerusalem would operate at “limited capacity” continuing to “honor already scheduled passport and Consular of Birth Abroad appointments” scheduled in that location. No indication was made as to the conditions under which normal operations would resume. In the same announcement, all U.S. government employees and their family members in all parts of the country were officially instructed to limit personal travel to the city in which they reside, to remain close to home and/or close to a bomb shelter during daylight hours, and to remain indoors in their residences from 8:00 P.M. until 5:00 A.M. the next day.
Without the ability to obtain valid U.S. passports for their children, families of American citizens – including those who live in the parts of the country under rocket fire – are unable to return to the United States.
The embassy first indicated its intention to drastically reduce services on Sunday, posting across its social media platforms saying that “due to the continuing rocket attacks, the Embassy Branch Office in Tel Aviv is operating at minimal staffing. Currently, there are no additional appointments available.”
Their Facebook page was subsequently deluged with anguished responses. One woman wrote that their mission was supposed to be to “serve U.S. citizens in times of crisis and instead they are abandoning us.”
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Dani Sayag, 41, a Shoham resident, had struggled to find an available appointment to renew her daughter’s passport so that she and her family could fly on the trip they have booked this summer to see family after being separated over the pandemic year. On Tuesday, she was informed that her hard-won appointment the next day had been canceled and “will be rescheduled when conditions permit.”
She fears, she said, that she will not be rescheduled in time to obtain a passport early enough to take their long-planned trip to see their family.
“It took me a painful three months to book an appointment because they only opened new appointment slots every now and then and at non-specific times, meaning you have had to practically make it your full-time job to try and book an appointment. I find it highly frustrating that they closed this week. The embassy is practically one massive bomb shelter, the way it’s built. So why are they closed?”
Danielle Engleman, 31, a Tel Aviv mother of a 2-year-old toddler and a 1-month-old infant, said she felt “utterly abandoned by the U.S. government.”
Engleman said she was desperate to get on a plane to bring her children to see their 70-year-old now-vaccinated grandfather living in Florida, who she has not seen since November 2019.
However, it has been impossible to get her son registered and issued a passport at the U.S. Embassy or its branch office, whose bureaucracy, she said, has been impenetrable.
In the current security situation, with sirens sounding in Tel Aviv, she said that it would have be an ideal time to “get out of the country for a bit” now and combine her reunion with her father with allowing her to care of a newborn without worrying about running for shelter during a rocket attack.
“I have been repeatedly denied, told that seeing family is not an emergency. Who are they to tell me what is a valid reason to fly home to my country? That is a right that my children and I should have. It is unsettling to know we are basically trapped and that there is nobody at the embassy to talk to. Whatever you do, you get a form response. We are just stuck. I’d be willing to drive to Eilat to get a passport. I’d do anything it takes but there is nothing I can do.”
Given the circumstances, Engleman said, she doesn’t understand why any creative digital solutions haven’t been explored as alternatives to the mandatory in-person appointments. Another possibility, she suggested, would be to allow unregistered newborn children of American citizens like her son to be permitted to enter the U.S. on their Israeli passports on a temporary basis without a visa, even without their formal registration as being citizens themselves.
“He’s a newborn baby,” she said. “It’s not like he’s a danger to U.S. security or intends to become an illegal immigrant.”
Visas for Israelis seeking to enter the U.S. are even more difficult to obtain than passport services. The Tel Aviv Branch Office announced over the weekend that it had “temporarily suspended routine visa services … We will resume routine visa services in Tel Aviv as soon as possible but are unable to provide a specific date at this time.”
Melissa Dil, an American married to an Israeli, said she will be forced to bring her children to see her family in Los Angeles alone this summer, after her husband’s visa expired last year. “The earliest interview appointment they will give him is in January 2022. No exceptions. So now I have to travel on my own with three kids and leave him behind.”
In its email sent widely to U.S. citizens, the embassy additionally stressed that it would not assist citizens affected by the widespread cancelations of flights in and out of Israel by many commercial carriers as a result of the hostilities.
“The U.S. government has no plans to arrange repatriation flights from Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza,” read the embassy email.
An out for U.S. citizens in Gaza
All such departures, they said, would take place through the Rafah border crossing into Egypt. The Erez crossing into Israel, the embassy noted, “remains closed at this time and we do not have any information on when it might reopen.”
In an email announcement the embassy outlined a procedure for Americans in Gaza which includes getting a negative COVID-19 test, filling out paperwork and sending it to the embassy, and that “once we have notified the Government of Egypt and the Palestinian Authority of your intended travel, we will contact you by email to confirm that you are cleared to travel.”
The citizens and permanent residents were told to then go to the Rafah crossing with identification and passports and that they would be permitted to make their way into Egypt, but that they would be responsible for making their own travel arrangements to Cairo, and, if desired, out of the country.