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Save Our Allies and other special ops vets to help Americans evacuate Israel

“We're providing a personal handheld approach to these people that need to get out of the country."
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Israel port of Haifa american evacuation
U.S. citizens wait to be evacuated from the port of Haifa to Cyprus, on October 16, 2023. Tens of thousands of US passport holders live in Israel and 29 have been confirmed killed in the Hamas attacks on October 7. Another 15 are missing and believed to be among hostages held by Hamas since the attacks. (ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)

A group run by U.S. special operations veterans that came together during the evacuation of Kabul has sent teams to Israel to help stranded Americans navigate the hurdles to leaving.

Save Our Allies, a group born during the Kabul evacuation, and the Special Operations Association of America, a veteran service organization in Washington D.C., have partnered on the project, sending volunteers to Israel to contact Americans who may wish to leave.

“We’re providing a personal handheld approach to these people that need to get out of the country,” said Nick Palmisciano, a former Army infantry captain and founder of Save Our Allies. “There’s a human being, that if need be, is physically going to grab you and bring you to the airport or bring you to a port to get out or bring you to a gate. There is someone that will make sure that you’re good.”

In most cases, said Palmisciano, the Save Our Allies teams will act as a sort of caseworker for Americans hoping to leave, helping them cut through red tape and official government processes. 

“The government’s not going to do that. They’re going to put out an alert, like, ‘Hey, come here at this time,’” Palmisciano said.

The group is also putting Americans on private chartered planes to leave, Palmisciano said, though he would not elaborate on specific plans or numbers. 

Americans in Gaza, however, are still stranded in the 140-square-mile strip due to movement restrictions from Israel and a closed border crossing with Egypt.

“There are Americans that are in Gaza that are asking for help and we are wading through those challenges right now,” he said. “As you can imagine, there are challenges that the government has to address that are beyond our ability.”

The IDF has told one million of Gaza’s residents to move to the south as it plans to carry out ground operations in the north. Despite Israel’s warnings, nearly 100,000 Gaza residents are still in Gaza City in the northern part of the strip.

While Save Our Allies was born as an ad hoc evacuation plan in Kabul, SOAA has a longer history as a Washington-based non-profit with experience gathering information from war zones, and supplying medical supplies and support. 

“This is very much a special-operation style mission,” said Palmisciano.

Arriving in the bedlam of the Afghan war’s finals weeks, Save Our Allies orchestrated flights that lifted 12,000 Afghans out of the country.

Since the Kabul withdrawal, Palmisciano said Save Our Allies has learned from some of the criticisms and made changes to the way they operate. Now, he said, the group works to build coalitions rather than “operate in a silo” and makes sure to “over-communicate with extreme specificity.”

“We are not paid. We’re out here doing the best that we can to help Americans,” Palmisciano said. “We absolutely are going to make mistakes but I 100% know that us doing our best is better than us watching it from the couch. “

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Compared to Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine, the situation in Israel right now is more permissive, according to Palmisciano. But there’s a “very real threat” that it can change on a dime if other players get involved like Hezbollah or Iran, which would make it much harder to help evacuees, he said. 

Non-profits and volunteer groups deploying teams of ex-special operations troops have become commonplace in conflict and natural disaster zones.

Palmisciano said there’s “an illusion” that the government needs to be the one to solve problems, but he believes that the small, dynamic abilities of special operations veterans can move faster in some cases than a large organization like the U.S. government.

“The great thing about middle-aged guys is that there’s a lot less ego. We’re not bringing people into these situations that are looking for a fight or anything,” Palmisciano said. “We’re bringing people that are adults that want to solve problems.”

Palmisciano said Save Our Allies began the process of sending teams to Israel immediately after Hamas terrorists crossed into Israel by land, air, and sea to attack small Israeli towns, known as kibbutzes in the southern part of the country. Thousands of Israelis were murdered or kidnapped into Gaza, a Palestinian enclave in the southwest corner of Israel that has been controlled by Hamas since 2007.

Israel is “on board” with what the groups are doing on the ground, Palmisciano said, and the teams are communicating with U.S. officials to avoid duplicating efforts.

According to the State Department, over 3,000 American citizens have departed Israel and the West Bank via air, land border, or other means since the conflict’s start

In most situations, the State Department is still urging American citizens to use commercial transportation to leave the country. Due to limited capacity and high demand, the U.S. government is currently assisting citizens with departures, according to a State Department spokesperson, offering more than 4,000 seats on U.S. government-chartered air and sea transport for American citizens and their immediate families.

It is still unclear whether evacuees could end up being charged for those flights. Government-facilitated flights will continue to depart from Ben Gurion International Airport through at least Thursday, October 19.

The process to depart with government help begins with filling out an online form. But State Department officials say many of the American citizens who have completed the form have not sought to depart. So far, flights, boats, and other transportation offered by the U.S. government have generally departed at half capacity or less, according to the State Department.

For now, though, cost may still be holding back some Americans. 

U.S. law requires that government-coordinated evacuation of U.S. citizens, or third-country nationals, on commercial transportation fall under a controversial repayment plan. 

Since 2002, passengers on government-arranged transportation have been required to sign promissory notes and commit to repaying the government for transportation fees — a cost capped as “no greater” than a full-fare economy ticket or “comparable alternate transportation,” according to a State Department spokesperson.

Several attempts have been made in Congress to get rid of the repayment program, including an effort during the COVID-19 pandemic in which thousands of American citizens found themselves trapped abroad as countries closed their borders.

The repayment plan does not apply to military evacuations of civilians.

Earlier this week, the State Department chartered a Royal Caribbean cruise ship for Americans looking to leave the country out of a port in Haifa, an Israeli-Arab city in the north of Israel. The Rhapsody of the Seas was in the region and canceled its sailing plans when the conflict began last weekend. The ship is providing Americans with free passage, accommodation, and food, according to the company.

Update, October 17, 2023: This story has been updated to reflect Save Our Allies’ role in the Kabul evacuation.

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