CAIRO/WASHINGTON — The United States (US) was still hammering out details of a deal with Israel and Egypt on Thursday (Oct 19) to get aid into the Palestinian Gaza Strip as Egypt sent machinery to repair roads in expectation the Rafah crossing would soon open.
Rafah is the only crossing out of Gaza not controlled by Israel but has been out of operation for nearly two weeks since the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas attacked Israel on Oct 7. Israel has bombarded the enclave in retaliation, worsening conditions for the 2.3 million people living there under a blockade by Israel and Egypt since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007.
The White House said on Wednesday it had been agreed for up to 20 trucks to pass through, with hopes for more trucks later.
However, the newly appointed US Special Envoy for Middle East Humanitarian Issues David Satterfield was on Thursday still meeting Israeli and Egyptian officials to “negotiate the exact modalities” of that agreement, said State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller.
“We want to see sustained humanitarian assistance going into Gaza for the benefit of innocent civilians,” Mr Miller said.
Mr Miller said Israel had concerns that Hamas could divert the aid, which Washington believed was legitimate.
Diplomatic activity around the opening of the Rafah crossing has intensified, with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi receiving the top US general overseeing troops in the Middle East as well as King Abdullah of Jordan, and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calling in Cairo for aid to be delivered at scale and on a sustained basis.
Egypt is also hosting a summit on Saturday on the Gaza crisis and the future of the Palestinian issue, which Mr Guterres is expected to attend.
“Egypt seeks to bring in the humanitarian aid piled up in front of the Egyptian side, and for this entry to be continuous, permanent and without interruption,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said, speaking alongside Mr Guterres.
Most of Gaza’s residents depended on aid before the current conflict started and about 100 trucks daily were providing humanitarian relief to the enclave, according to the United Nations.
More than 100 trucks were waiting close to the crossing on the Egyptian side on Thursday, though it was not expected that aid would enter before Friday, Egyptian security sources said. More aid is being held in the Egyptian city of Al Arish, about 45km from Rafah.
Footage broadcast by Al Jazeera showed large craters, broken paving and damaged buildings inside the crossing area.
Western governments have been negotiating for the evacuation of foreign passport holders from Gaza, something Egyptian officials have conditioned on aid getting in. Details of potential evacuations are unclear.
Egypt has been clear it opposes any mass displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, reflecting Arab fears that Palestinians could once more permanently flee or be forced from their homes as they were in the war around Israel’s creation.
Cairo is also wary of security in northeastern Sinai, where an Islamist insurgency intensified a decade ago, and of any spillover from Hamas-controlled Gaza.
On Wednesday, after talks with US President Joe Biden, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said Israel would not block aid for civilians entering Gaza from Egypt, as long as those supplies do not reach Hamas.
The agreement was reached after US top diplomat Antony Blinken spent 9 hours on Monday trying to convince Mr Netanyahu and Israel’s war cabinet to agree to let aid pass through, but even after much back and forth, Israel was yet to provide assurances to refrain from striking the Rafah crossing.
Israel said it would continue a blockade of humanitarian aid from Israel into Gaza until hostages held by Hamas were returned.
Israel’s bombardment and siege of Gaza is in retaliation for a Hamas incursion into Israel on Oct 7 during which 1,400 people were killed and at least 200 hostages were taken.
The toll from Israeli strikes on Gaza has risen to more than 3,500 dead and more than 12,000 wounded, according to Palestinian health officials. REUTERS