In push for Gaza aid, some signs of progress

Biden said a convoy of trucks may be allowed inside on Friday.

October 19, 2023, 6:46 PM

While desperately needed humanitarian aid is still locked outside of Gaza, there were some signs of progress toward implementing an agreement that President Joe Biden says will ultimately allow a convoy of 20 trucks filled with food, water and medical supplies to enter though Egypt, officials said on Thursday.

Matthew Miller, the State Department's lead spokesperson, said that the administration's newly appointed Special Envoy for Middle East Humanitarian Issues David Satterfield was on the ground in Israel where he was working with Israeli and Egyptian officials to "develop the exact mechanisms to implement the framework" of the agreement to open the Rafah border gate to aid that was negotiated by the president and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Biden, who is set to deliver a prime-time speech calling for aid to Israel following the terror attacks by Hamas, previously said he anticipated that the Rafah gate would open Friday.

Late Thursday, U.S. officials were still hopeful they could meet that target, but running into roadblocks, a source familiar with the negotiations told ABC News.

The administration anticipated that repairs to the border crossing caused by Israeli strikes could be swiftly completed, but that work was taking longer than planned, a source said, adding that another hang-up was ensuring that American citizens trapped in Gaza would be permitted to exit along with their immediate family members.

So far, American officials have not given any public guarantee that a deal to move humanitarian aid in through the crossing will also allow the hundreds of U.S. nationals thought to be inside Gaza an opportunity to exit.

While American officials have expressed confidence that Egypt and Israel will ultimately allow humanitarian assistance to flow into Gaza, so far they have not given any guarantee that the deal will also allow the hundreds of American citizens thought to be inside Gaza an opportunity to exit.

"Of course, if Rafah gate is open to allow humanitarian aid to go in, we will be trying to get out to the American citizens who are in Gaza who want to leave," Miller said.

The initial influx of aid will likely do little to alleviate the worsening humanitarian crisis inside Gaza, where the United Nations says over a million people have been displaced, many do not have clean drinking water and hospitals are running dangerously low on fuel needed to operate generators.

PHOTO: A UNDP-provided tent camp for Palestinians displaced by the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip is seen in Khan Younis, on Oct. 19, 2023.
A UNDP-provided tent camp for Palestinians displaced by the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip is seen in Khan Younis, on Oct. 19, 2023.
Fatima Shbair/AP

Over 32,300 truckloads of goods passed through Rafah last year, and more than twice that number entered Gaza through a separate portal in Israel, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Additionally, demand has grown exponentially. A representative from Doctors Without Borders said medical workers inside Gaza "have been going through three months of supplies in three days."

If and when the Rafah gate is opened, U.N. and nongovermnental organization humanitarian workers are expected play a large role in distributing the assistance -- but how they will avoid a potentially dangerous rush on the goods is still unclear.

Israel shares two additional border crossings with Gaza; both remain closed after Hamas militants were able to cross through the portals when the terrorist group carried out its attacks on Oct. 7.

U.S. officials have said they expect the process for admitting aid and possibly extracting foreign nationals through Gaza will be ongoing, as they anticipate that they will be able to convince the parties involved in the talks to open the crossing for various short intervals of time.

However, those hopes could be dashed if Israel assesses that Hamas fighters or other terrorist groups are intercepting the aid -- a possibility negotiators are working to avert.

"The Israelis have various serious concerns about the diversion of humanitarian assistance," Miller said. "We are working out an agreement to ensure that any deliveries can be handled appropriately."

PHOTO: A Palestinian boy carries containers to fill with drinking water from a water distribution vehicle, amid the water crisis caused by the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip, Oct. 18, 2023.
A Palestinian boy carries containers to fill with drinking water from a water distribution vehicle, amid the water crisis caused by the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip, Oct. 18, 2023.
Mohammed Talatene/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

But Miller admitted oversight efforts inside Gaza, where Hamas wields control, face significant complications.

"That there is not an Israeli military force in Gaza. There's not a U.N. peacekeeping force in Gaza. The people with guns inside Gaza are Hamas, and so Hamas may try to divert this assistance and keep it from getting to the civilians who it is intended for," he said. "We think that's a legitimate concern."

Biden vowed on Wednesday that if Hamas does intervene in the process established to bring aid into Gaza, "then it's going to end."

"We're not going to be sending any humanitarian aid to Hamas if they're going to be confiscating it," the president said. "That's the commitment that I've made."

Israel is also requiring that aid shipments pass inspection prior to crossing into Egypt.

Even in less acrimonious times, the Israeli government limits what it considers to be "dual-use" items, or products that can have civilian or military applications.

Currently, the list of restricted items includes some building materials, certain medical equipment, and some agricultural items, but previously it was much longer, and it's not yet clear whether Israel will move to tighten regulations.

It's also not clear whether Israel will allow fuel to be included in shipments of humanitarian assistance. Hospitals treating civilians desperately need fuel to operate generators because the area's main power plant is inoperable, but the Israeli government fears that fuel could also be of great value to Hamas as its fighters continue to launch rockets.

Cairo has voiced its opposition to allowing Palestinian refugees to enter the Sinai.

Publicly, Egyptian officials say the country does not want to be complicit in what they describe as the "ethnic cleansing of Gaza."

But Egypt is also wary of security threats to the Sinai Peninsula, a location the State Department described as a "particularly dangerous area, with frequent attacks on security forces and civilians."

Egypt has also recently accepted refugees from other conflicts in Africa, and Egyptian officials have expressed concern that the country's economy may not be able to support a large influx of displaced people.

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