A lawyer for Esmail’s family told them she is being held at a Palestinian women’s prison called Damon, her son Ibrahim Hamed said. Members of the Alagha family do not know where their relatives are. The State Department said Thursday that it was aware of the reports but could not comment further because of privacy concerns.
The IDF confirmed the arrest of Esmail for “incitement on social media” in a statement to The Washington Post on Wednesday. “Suspects arrested in the operation were transferred to the security forces for further questioning,” the IDF said, without providing more information about Esmail’s alleged social media activity.
In response to a separate request, a spokesperson for the IDF said the army was checking the report about the raid in Mawasi and did not respond immediately to a question about the whereabouts of the two brothers.
The detentions come amid increasingly tense relations between the Biden administration and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Israel that the Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7 wasn’t “a license to dehumanize others when the people of Gaza have nothing to do with the attacks.”
On Thursday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said of the arrests of the U.S. citizens: “We are just processing this information. We want to know more about the reasons here, and I’m confident that our ambassador, Jack Lew, is looking into” the situation and “trying to get more information and context here.”
At least 27,708 people have been killed in Gaza and 67,147 injured since the war began, the Gaza Health Ministry said Thursday.
Since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which killed 1,200 people, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Palestinians have been detained in Gaza under what advocates say is a deliberately opaque legal framework that captures combatants and civilians alike.
At the same time, Israel launched a wave of arrests of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem and has detained some 7,000 Palestinians since Oct. 7, according to the Ramallah-based Palestinian Prisoners Club.
In both cases, Palestinians who have been detained in this system have described abuse, including torture.
The International Committee of the Red Cross released a statement on Thursday that criticized Israel for suspending its visits to Palestinian detainees and said the lack of access was a breach of international humanitarian law.
“Wherever and whoever they may be, detainees need to be treated with humanity and dignity at all times,” the humanitarian organization said in a statement. It added that its delegates had been visiting Palestinian detainees for over 55 years before Oct. 7, when the visits were suspended “until further notice.”
In both of the cases involving American citizens this week, family members said that the homes were targeted in early-morning raids. Esmail’s family told the Washington Post that Israeli forces broke into the 46-year-old woman’s home in the West Bank on Monday.
In the case of the two brothers, their cousin Yasmeen Elagha, a law student in Chicago, told The Post that her phone rang around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday. It was her aunt calling from Gaza. She was sobbing and her voice was shaky. Her aunt, Samar Alagha, told her that IDF forces had broken down the door of the home where they were staying in Mawasi as people slept.
She said the soldiers tied up women and children and took away the men of military age, including her sons Borak and Hashem.
Four other male relatives in the home were also detained in the raid, her aunt told Elagha, including Elagha’s two uncles, one of whom is mentally disabled.
Rep. Troy A. Carter (D-La.) said he was “extremely concerned” about the detention of Esmail, a resident of Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District.
“I have been in contact with the American Embassy and the State Department to inquire why a U.S. citizen is being held. I am praying for her safety,” Carter said Tuesday in a social media post.
Elagha shared an email she received early Thursday from the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, which said only that it was “contacting relevant authorities on the matter” of the brothers.
“We are aware of these reports and we are currently seeking additional information, but I don’t have any additional information to share and would not be able to at this point given privacy considerations,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters on Thursday when asked about the reported detentions.
As of late last year, roughly 50 American citizens remained in Gaza despite frantic efforts to leave. Elagha said her family has been trying to get on the list of people allowed to leave Gaza for months. Her grandparents recently managed to leave the besieged enclave, but the rest of her family has remained trapped.
Israel has also stepped up military activity in the West Bank since Oct. 7, including a raid at a hospital last month by Israeli security forces disguised as medics and patients.
Tawfic Abdel Jabbar, a 17-year-old U.S. citizen also from Louisiana, was fatally shot in the head in the West Bank in January. In a statement that shed little light on the circumstances surrounding his death, Israeli police said an off-duty law enforcement officer, a soldier and an Israeli settler had all been involved in a “firearm discharge … directed towards a perceived threat.”
Miriam Berger and Evan Hill contributed to this report.