Ben Gurion International Airport outside of Tel Aviv is crowded with people anxiously waiting for flights departing Israel.

Ben Gurion International Airport outside of Tel Aviv is crowded with people anxiously waiting for flights departing Israel. (Save Our Allies)

The former special operations forces that helped evacuate Americans from conflict zones in Afghanistan and Ukraine are now in Israel, rushing hundreds of U.S. citizens to safety as the region plunges into war.

Save Our Allies, a rescue nonprofit created amid the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the Special Operations Association of America, an advocacy organization, are partnering for the urgent mission and attempting to pull out at-risk Americans, including in the blockaded Gaza enclave.

“We all spent a lot of time at war and now [we’re] trying to use the skills of operating in a war zone, and the intelligence community, to try to help people, to try to save folks where possible,” said Alex Plitsas, an Army veteran and SOAA board member.

Teams of U.S. military veterans, most of them from special forces, landed in Israel and nearby countries shortly after the Gaza-based Hamas militant group carried out sweeping massacres on Oct. 7 that killed about 1,400 people. At least 30 Americans died in the attack and another 13 are missing.

U.S. officials estimate there are between 160,000 and 170,000 U.S. citizens in Israel and about 500 to 600 in Gaza, the Palestinian territory bracing for an expected Israeli ground invasion. Gaza is under bombardment by Israel and its border crossings with Israel and Egypt have been closed.

About 1,500 Americans and their families have used charter planes and other transport sponsored by the U.S. government to leave Israel in recent days as commercial flights out of the warring country remain erratic, according to the State Department. More than 3,000 left using other means.

Nick Palmisciano, a former Army infantry captain and co-founder of Save Our Allies, said veterans on the ground and other volunteers in the U.S. have helped hundreds of Americans either connect with the State Department or depart on private planes chartered by the group.

“We’re a huge believer in public-private partnerships,” Palmisciano said. “No matter how cool any [non-governmental organization] thinks they are, nobody can do more than the United States government. But we tend to be much faster than the government.”

Thousands of U.S. citizens, from tourists to students to Americans working in Israel, have reached out to the joint Save Our Allies-SOAA mission for assistance and information, he said. There have also been requests for help for Americans stuck in Gaza, including aid workers and people visiting relatives, Plitsas said.

“They are basically trapped by surprise, and they had nothing to do with what had transpired,” he said. “They’re just victims of circumstance or happenstance.”

International efforts to open Gaza’s southern border with Egypt and allow safe passage for some civilians, including foreigners and dual nationals, have stalled even as water, food and other essentials inside the densely populated enclave dwindle.

Palmisciano said his team has been in touch with U.S. citizens in Gaza through the WhatsApp messaging service and the State Department is immediately notified of their plight but there is little else veterans can do for now.

“We’re not allowed to go in there and help anybody,” he said. “We’re taking our cues from the United States government on that and at this time, we cannot help those people.”

Plitsas and Palmisciano said the security environment in Israel is delicate and could rapidly deteriorate if the war expands into a broader regional conflict. The entry of other countries into the war or an offensive by Hamas or other terrorist attacks could all increase the threat level for the evacuation operation, Palmisciano said.

“We are currently telling Americans that if you have plans to get out, you should get out now because we’ve seen this multiple times now, where there was always a lull at the beginning where it seems like everything’s going to be alright,” he said. “But things have a tendency to get worse and we anticipate that it’ll get harder for people to easily move.”

In the meantime, Save Our Allies and SOAA are shepherding as many people as they can onto planes, boats and other means of escape. SOAA is also providing medical support and gathering information from the front lines for decision-makers in Washington, D.C., according to the organization.

The groups began their collaboration in Afghanistan, helping thousands of Afghan allies flee as U.S. forces withdrew and the country fell to the Taliban. Evacuation missions in Ukraine last year and now in Israel are a “natural extension” of that effort, Plitsas said.

“We’re an adaptable, on-the-ground force that adjusts to the situation,” Palmisciano said. “Right now, in this opening period of time, we’ve been a great stopgap to help people in the interim phase before the government really gets going.”

The State Department has said it will continue ferrying Americans out of Israel on chartered flights until at least Sunday.

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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