Egypt has agreed to allow aid trucks into Gaza, as anger rises globally over Israel’s siege of the isolated enclave in response to the brutal, coordinated Hamas attacks nearly two weeks ago.
The relentless bombardment of Gaza by Israel has sparked growing protests across the Middle East and heightened fears that the war could spiral into a wider regional conflict.
Speaking on his way back from a visit to Israel, United States President Joe Biden said his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had agreed to open the Rafah Crossing into Gaza for humanitarian aid – the only one not controlled by Israel.
Up to 20 trucks from an aid convoy waiting for days at the closed border gate would be allowed into Gaza, said Biden. The roads near the crossing, pocked with craters from Israeli airstrikes, will have to be fixed before the trucks can pass, Biden said. He added that work could be done over eight hours on Thursday before the first aid deliveries on Friday.
It’s also not clear how much of an impact the initial delivery will make for Gazan civilians caught up in a humanitarian catastrophe that the World Health Organization says is spiraling out of control and impacting hundreds of thousands of people.
“We hope it’s not a non-starter,” regional WHO representative Richard Brennan said Thursday of the aid deal, adding that there were “a lot of complexities to getting this aid operation going.”
“This is not a sprint. This is just the start. This is a marathon. An absolute marathon,” he said, adding that the goal was to get up to 100 trucks of aid distributed per day.
“We’re hearing figures now that suddenly people only have three liters of clean water per person per day, said Brennan, adding that at “absolute minimum” people need 15 liters for drinking, cooking and basic hygiene.
Located in Egypt’s north Sinai, the Rafah Crossing is the sole border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. It falls along an 8-mile (12.8-kilometer) fence that separates Gaza from the Sinai desert, and has been tightly controlled on each side of the border for years.
The decision to open the crossing followed several days of deliberations, despite pressure from the US that Egypt do so. Egypt initially said it won’t allow refugees to flood its territory, has instead insisted that Israel allow it to deliver aid to Gazans, and expressed concerns that Israeli air strikes could hit aid convoys.
The talks between the two leaders focused “on the humanitarian situation in Gaza and ways to facilitate the implementation of humanitarian aid,” according to a statement from the Egyptian president’s office.
“The call between President el-Sisi and the American President witnessed the agreement to enter humanitarian aid to the Strip through Rafah crossing in a sustainable manner,” the statement said.
Biden said the crossing would only be open for aid, not for evacuations – leaving an uncertain fate for the 2.2 million Palestinians with no way out of Gaza, including foreign nationals and dual citizens.
Israel has meanwhile said it will not block humanitarian aid going into Gaza from Egypt, according to a statement Wednesday from the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it will not allow supplies into Gaza from its own territory until Hamas releases all hostages.
On Thursday morning, at least 30 people were killed in Israeli airstrikes on several areas in Rafah, according to the official Palestinian press agency WAFA, an indication of the difficulties of rushing aid through the area.
Calls for aid have grown increasingly desperate over the past week as Palestinians in Gaza fled south, heeding Israel’s warnings to evacuate from the north – though many soon found that nowhere was safe in the densely packed strip of land.
As near constant airstrikes pound the area, overwhelmed hospitals are running out of medicine and fuel to keep the lights on as stretched medics struggle to save lives.
UN agencies have warned that stores are less than a week away from running out of food and that Gaza’s last seawater desalination plant has shut down, bringing the risk of further deaths, dehydration and waterborne diseases.
In pictures: The deadly clashes in Israel and Gaza
Dire conditions worsening
Israel has maintained an air, land and sea blockade on Gaza for nearly 17 years, meaning the strip has been almost totally isolated from the rest of the world. Conditions were already dire before the war – and are rapidly worsening after Israel cut off supplies to Gaza following the attack by Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the strip.
That murder and kidnapping rampage killed an estimated 1,400 people in Israel, mostly civilians, in what has been described as the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. Hamas has also seized more than 200 hostages.
In the days since nearly 3,500 people have been killed in Gaza, according to Palestinian health officials, with hundreds of women and children among the dead.
Public fury had already been building, particularly in Arab nations. But it then erupted after a deadly blast tore through Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza on Tuesday, which Gaza authorities said killed hundreds of civilians. Palestinian officials have accused Israel of hitting the hospital, a claim Israel denies.
The blast, which took place hours before Biden was set to leave the White House for his trip to the Middle East, set off a furious scramble inside his administration – and caused the postponement of a highly anticipated summit with Arab leaders in Jordan.
He wouldn’t go into details about attempts to get Americans and other civilians out of Gaza, but said he was “hopeful” about efforts to do so.
With anti-Israel protests rising across the Middle East there are fears other fronts could open up, particularly on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon where the Iran-backed militia dominates and has increasingly clashed with Israel’s military over the last week.
“What some Hezbollah is doing now is dragging Lebanon into a conflict that it has no business to be in, and it surely won’t benefit from,” Conricus said.
Meanwhile Chinese leader Xi Jinping told Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly on Thursday that Beijing was ready to work with Egypt to “inject more certainty and stability into the region,” according to state media.
“Currently the international and regional situation is evolving in a profound and complex manner,” Xi told Madbouly, according to state-run CCTV.