- Washington Post
Inside the Daring Plot to Rescue an American Soldier’s Mother from Gaza
11:18 JST, January 9, 2024
Each night was the same. From his home in California, Fadi Sckak would dial his mother, Zahra, who was sheltered with her brother-in-law amid the rubble and tank fire in Gaza City’s besieged Sabra neighborhood. Often, he’d have to call more than 60 times before a connection was made and she was able to assure her son that, yes, she was still alive.
Fadi’s father, Abedella, had died on Nov. 26. Eight days earlier, the 56-year-old had been struck in the calf by what the family believes was a stray Israeli bullet as the couple fled what remained of their home for the past 15 years. Without medical care, Abedella’s condition steadily deteriorated. First his legs went numb. He stopped talking. And then, he was gone.
Late last month, in an act of desperation, Fadi Sckak, 25, contacted the news media to make a public plea for help. Aided by the Arab American Civil Rights League, Sckak, a business student at San José State University, was then connected with a group of American military veterans who specialize in coordinating humanitarian evacuations from war zones. They were moved by the story, particularly because one of his two brothers, Ragi, is an infantry soldier in the U.S. Army who was deployed in South Korea as their parents’ crisis unfolded.
What ensued was an extraordinary rescue operation, executed deep within the bombed-out Palestinian enclave after several days of intensive negotiations between the U.S. and Israeli governments. At the urging of White House officials and other key figures in Washington, senior Israeli officials approved Zahra Sckak’s extraction along with her brother-in-law Farid, a U.S. citizen, and supported their unimpeded passage to the border with Egypt, where they crossed to safety on Dec. 31.
The daring daytime mission was performed by a small team of volunteers who shuttled them south through the Gaza hellscape. It was conducted without incident, according to people familiar with the matter who declined to elaborate, citing concerns for the safety of those involved. No shots were fired.
In an interview, Zahra Sckak, 44, called the journey “terrifying.” She declined to identify her location, fearful that doing so would put her life in jeopardy once more, but said she is receiving medical care and gradually recovering. Sckak expressed gratitude to her son Fadi, who “told me not to worry,” and acknowledged that it has been difficult to reconcile all that had to transpire for her to leave Gaza.
“It’s like, something big happened,” she said, “but I didn’t know anything about it. It’s unbelievable.”
This account is based on interviews with 11 people familiar with the Sckak family’s ordeal, and efforts by the United States and Israel to facilitate last month’s secretive operation. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the still-sensitive details about how the two governments, motivated by the plight of a deployed American soldier, intervened to save his loved ones.
The Associated Press previously reported that Zahra Sckak and her brother-in-law had safely made it out of Gaza.
The Israeli government did not respond to requests for comment. Senior U.S. officials have been guarded when discussing the operation, which occurred as hundreds of other American citizens are believed to be stranded in Gaza amid Israel’s punishing military campaign. Begun after Hamas militants staged a brazen cross-border attack on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200, the Israeli offensive – which is backed by Washington – has killed more than 22,800 people, most of them civilians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
Spokespeople at the White House, Pentagon and State Department declined to address most questions about the rescue or make those directly involved available for interviews. But four U.S. officials said the matter was closely tracked by senior leaders in Washington and the Middle East.
“While there are many Americans still at risk, and our government is paying close attention to their situation and doing everything we can to get them back, this opportunity presented itself,” said one of the officials. “We did everything we could to get this soldier’s family back to safety. We’re lucky to have worked with all of the interagency and partners to have a successful outcome.”
Administration officials have emphasized that no U.S. troops were ever in Gaza during the rescue. At the White House on Thursday, John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, described the operation as “part and parcel of an ongoing effort that we have had working with Israeli counterparts and the Egyptians to allow for safe passage of Americans.”
A State Department spokesman, Matthew Miller, told reporters that the U.S. government played “more of a liaison role.” The United States, he said, keeps in touch with Americans who want to leave, and has assisted 1,300 citizens, family members and lawful permanent residents since the war began.
Alicia Nieves, a legal advocate with the Arab American Civil Rights League who has assisted the Sckak family, said that soon after Israel began its military campaign in Gaza, Zahra and Abedella Sckak, who lived for a time in the United States, applied though the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem for authorization to cross into Egypt. By the time Zahra and Farid, her brother-in-law, were approved for departure in early December, Nieves said, Abedella Sckak was dead.
“It’s almost like a black box, how it worked,” she added. “And there are still people, a handful that we know of, that still can’t get on the [departure] list as Americans.”
For Alex Plitsas, an Army veteran and member of the Special Operations Association of America (SOAA), the group that helped connect U.S. and Israeli officials who coordinated the extraction, the mission evoked the celebrated World War II film “Saving Private Ryan,” in which a team of American troops is dispatched to pull out a young soldier from the fighting in Normandy after his three brothers were killed in combat.
“I’m like, Oh God, this poor kid, his father’s dead, his mother’s all that’s left, she’s trapped – we’ve got to get her the hell out of there,” Plitsas said. “That’s what went through my brain.”
The volunteers who drove the Sckaks out of Gaza are associates of SOAA, he added.
Ragi Sckak, the soldier, said in an interview that he had approached his Army superiors in South Korea to ask for help evacuating his parents from Gaza but was directed to what he characterized as unhelpful immigration documents. As a junior soldier, he said, he didn’t feel empowered to escalate his request.
Everything changed once his brother’s story appeared in the national news in late December. He was called into the office of Lt. Col. Lloyd Wohlschlegel, his battalion commander, and put on a call with a more senior military official who said the White House was pursuing options for extracting his mother from Gaza.
“I was like: Finally,” Ragi Sckak recalled.
Plitsas, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, contacted an aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – a professional acquaintance, he said – to apprise the Israeli government of the Sckaks’ situation. Army Col. Steve Gabavics, who is based at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, made contact with Israel’s Defense Ministry.
Brett McGurk, a senior White House official with extensive connections in the Middle East, also got involved. McGurk, according to people familiar with his role in the negotiations, emphasized to the Israeli government that the Biden administration supported efforts to evacuate the Sckaks and urged his counterparts to prioritize the case.
Andrew P. Miller, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Israeli and Palestinian affairs, was actively involved, too. He emailed Fadi Sckak, the soldier’s brother, a few days before the rescue to inform him of a strategy that was coming together.
“The current plan is that your mother and uncle will be picked up … and taken to Rafah Border crossing for transit into Egypt,” said the email, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. “This is all being coordinated with the IDF,” shorthand for the Israel Defense Forces, he said.
In his email, Miller noted that the U.S. Embassy in Cairo would interview Zahra Sckak for a nonimmigrant visa. An immigrant visa, he said, could be obtained through a separate process. “Please let us know what she is thinking,” Miller wrote.
On Dec. 24, Lt. Gen. Michael Fenzel, a senior American military official assigned to coordinate with Israeli and Palestinian officials, signed a letter for Israeli authorities verifying the Sckaks’ relationship to a U.S. service member. Other senior officials at Army headquarters, including departing Army Staff director Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt, and personnel in Army Secretary Christine Wormuth’s office, also took measures to ensure there were no administrative roadblocks.
In Gaza, Zahra Sckak’s physical condition was worsening. A preexisting knee injury limited her ability to walk, and she’d become dehydrated, exacerbating an infection she had developed while sheltering in a crowded apartment building. Ben Clay, a former Special Forces soldier working on the case with other military veterans, sent her instructions for how to distill and purify water from non-potable sources such as toilet tanks.
The family members’ eventual transit out of Gaza and through the border with Egypt required multiple attempts, those familiar with the operation said. The first was cut short because of a miscommunication about the approved window for their travel. The scarcity of fuel was another obstacle.
When the team of volunteers delivered Zahra Sckaks and her brother-in-law to Gaza’s border crossing at Rafah, the gate was closed, forcing them to stay the night nearby. When they returned the following day, Fadi Sckak said his mother had to “make a scene,” shouting in English at Palestinian officials who questioned how she and her brother-in-law had obtained permission to enter Egypt and what support was awaiting them on the other side.
Originally from Jordan and the Gaza Strip, Zahra and Abedella Sckak had moved to the United States to start their family. The children were born in Texas before they relocated to California.
In 2008, everyone moved back to Gaza, Abedella’s home, to be near extended family. Fadi Sckak returned to the United States at age 15 and his brother Ragi came back after high school. As a student working retail jobs and sending most of his earnings to his parents, Fadi Sckak said he never had the means to begin the costly U.S. immigration process for them.
Fadi Sckak said that his parents struggled to find work in Gaza, where even before the war employment was scarce. Instead, he said, they relied “solely on the money I sent them as their primary source of income.” While living in the United States years ago, he added, his father worked several jobs. He drove an ice cream truck for a time, cooked at Pizza Hut and KFC, and worked as a handyman to provide for the family.
His mother, he said, had memorably “made a scene” another time, when he attempted to obtain the paperwork needed to travel back to the United States as a teenager amid another period of war, in 2014. She held his U.S. passport high as she pushed her way through a clamoring crowd of Palestinian travelers trying to cross the border.
“My mother definitely has a lot of courage, and that’s what kind of made me who I am today,” he said. “She’ll do anything for me, so it’s like, why wouldn’t I do the same?”
Ragi Sckak was given permission to return home to Colorado two months early from his training rotation in Korea. He is beginning paperwork that will allow Zahra to become his military dependent, granting her benefits and helping facilitate efforts to secure her U.S. citizenship. He said he’s looking forward to reuniting with his mother, but feels constant pain and regret that he hadn’t known how to get the attention of military and government leaders soon enough to rescue his father.
Zahra Sckak said she looks forward to creating a new life with her sons in the United States. “That’s what I wish for,” she added. “This is my dream come true.”
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