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Echoes of Afghanistan? Biden faces criticism for lack of U.S. evacuation operation in Israel

Fend For Yourselves: Harrowing tales emerge about Americans seeking escape from Hamas onslaught and no support from a U.S. government caught with no contingency plan or answers for endangered Americans.

Published: October 11, 2023 11:00pm

Updated: October 12, 2023 6:33am

Former congressional staffer Yitz Friedman and his newlywed wife were wrapping up their honeymoon in Israel on Saturday with a religious holiday celebration at a synagogue near Jerusalem when the rabbi abruptly halted the service.

“In the middle of the prayers, the rabbi got up and he announced to the entire synagogue that anyone who's a reservist had to go home and check their phones, see what their orders were, because war had broken out,” Friedman recalled.

Soon, Friedman realized he and his bride were in peril as Hamas terrorists were hunting down American and Israeli citizens for executions or hostages. More bad news was in the offing. Friedman, a communications manager for the American Accountability Foundation nonprofit, was alerted a few hours later that the couple’s return flight Sunday to America was canceled amid the violent outbreak: All major U.S. airlines had suspended operations in the country.

He scrambled to find a way home but learned a painful reality encountered by hundreds of Israeli-Americans visiting their homeland this past weekend: The Biden administration for days has offered no evacuation help to its citizens in harm’s way inside the borders of one of the United States’ most trusted allies.

“We called our embassy there. We called, you know, our government,” he said in an interview to air Thursday on the John Solomon Reports podcast. “When I called them, they were very cold. They were dismissive. And they basically told me go online and check out the flights yourself.”

Friedman’s experience has been recounted by many American Jews that found themselves trapped this weekend by the sudden canceling of U.S. airlines flights in and out of Israel, members of Congress told Just the News. Days later, there still were no evacuation plans even as other countries extricated their own citizens.

The debacle – which Biden officials promised Congress in a closed-door briefing on Wednesday would soon be fixed – harkened painful memories of the same failures to help American citizens as Afghanistan was falling to the Taliban during the administration’s bungled withdrawal from that country in August 2021.

“The administration needs to move military planes into Israel to get our residents out,” said Rep. Mike Lawler, (R-N.Y.), whose district has a large Jewish population who visit Israel often. “I have hundreds of residents in the 17th Congressional District of New York who are currently stranded in Israel. And they were there for the holidays. And you know, obviously, they have family there, many of them. But they want to come home, understandably. And we need to do everything we can to get them out as quickly as possible.

“It's been very frustrating,” he added during an interview with the John Solomon Reports podcast. “I've called the White House numerous times, reached out to the State Department and DOT. I've spoken with the commercial airlines, you know, the industry, and ours are three major airlines. It's a challenge here.”

Rep. Harriet Hageman, (R-Wy.), told the Just the News, No Noise television show Wednesday night that the slow evacuation help was predictable but unacceptable for an administration that has fumbled foreign crises dating to Afghanistan.

“This is a tragedy, beyond tragedies, and this administration, they're not even doing much to get our own citizens out,” she said. “We have citizens who are being held hostage, in addition to which there are all of the folks who have dual citizenship. It's like, yeah, you know, what if you didn't catch an airplane out of out of Israel? Good luck, that's probably a way to go! Who would ever take that kind of an approach as a leader?”

“With this administration, their policies are so poor that what they spend a lot of their time trying to do is distance themselves from having to make decisions,” she added. “And then when they make decisions or something goes bad, they spend all this time attempting to blame someone else for it. So it isn't as though they step up to take responsibility.”

In April, the Biden administration released a 12-page report accepting blame for failing to arrange earlier evacuations for Americans before Afghanistan fell to the Taliban two years ago and promised reforms for future crises. "Clearly we didn't get things right here with Afghanistan with how fast the Taliban was moving across the country," White House spokesman John Kirby said at the time

You can read the full report here.

More than five months later, signs of reform and lessons learned were not apparent in the Israel crisis, even five days into the war. Lawler said lawmakers were told by the Biden administration on Wednesday morning during a closed-door briefing that an evacuation plan for remaining U.S. citizens stranded in Israel was belatedly "in the making."

“We had a classified briefing this morning,” he said. “It was, you know, indicated that there would be an announcement forthcoming in the next 24 hours on this particular issue. So, you know, I'm hopeful, but it needs to move expeditiously.”

The State Department on Wednesday evening posted a statement on X, the social media platform formerly called Twitter, telling Americans still in Israel to try to catch a flight on a foreign airline.

"We are also exploring contract options to facilitate U.S. citizen travel to nearby countries and will provide updates to U.S. citizens who have registered via our online form," the State Department added.

The updated release simply told U.S. citizens "Terrorists and violent extremists may attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, and local government facilities.  Violence can occur in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza without warning." 

Friedman told Just the News he and his wife eventually hitched a flight home to America, not by any assistance of the Biden administration but ironically, on a United Arab Emirates flight made possible by the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords that opened free travel between Arab neighbors and Israel.

“President Biden had basically abandoned us and told us to fend for ourselves,” he said. “And we were only able to get out thanks to something that President Trump did. The only reasonable tickets that we were able to find were tickets to the United States on Emirates Airlines to Dubai,” he said.

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