The World Health Organization (WHO) said Thursday that Egypt and Israel’s agreement to allow some aid into Gaza represented “a start,” as Palestinians living in the besieged enclave await much-needed help.
Gazans, many of whom were already reliant on aid, are yet to see the promised supplies as roads need to be repaired first.
Getting aid into Gaza will be “an absolute marathon,” Dr. Richard Brennan, the WHO’s Regional Emergency Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Region, told CNN, adding that there are “a lot of complexities to getting this aid operation going.”
The deal between Egypt and Israel was struck by US President Joe Biden on Wednesday, 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 has left hundreds of thousands homeless and sparked growing protests across the Middle East, heightening fears that the war could spiral into a wider regional conflict.
Speaking on his way back from visiting Israel, 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, Biden said. He said first deliveries were likely on Friday.
A statement from the Egyptian president’s office said the agreement aimed at allowing the transit of aid in a “sustainable manner.”
The WHO’s Brennan said the 20 trucks were only a start, and that the aim is to get up to 100 trucks of aid distributed per day.
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 WHO says is spiraling out of control and impacting hundreds of thousands of people.
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 has repeatedly denied that the crossing was closed on its end of the border, saying the aid has been waiting for guarantees that trucks entering will not be targeted by Israel.
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 said it will not block humanitarian aid going into Gaza from Egypt, according to a statement 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
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 more than 3,700 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.
But Biden said his conversation with Egypt’s Sisi, which took place during a refueling stop, was a success. “Look, I came to get something done, I got it done,” he told CNN.
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.
Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus told CNN on Thursday that there was a “significant escalation” by Hezbollah, saying the group had fired numerous anti-tank missiles from Lebanon and had tried unsuccessfully to infiltrate into Israel.
“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.