RAFAH, Gaza Strip >> The border crossing between Egypt and Gaza opened Saturday to let a trickle of desperately needed aid into the besieged Palestinian territory for the first time since Israel sealed it off and began pounding it with airstrikes following Hamas’ bloody rampage two weeks ago.
Just 20 trucks were allowed in, an amount aid workers said was insufficient to address the unprecedented humanitarian crisis. More than 200 trucks carrying 3,000 tons of aid have been waiting nearby for days.
Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinians, half of whom have fled their homes, are rationing food and drinking dirty water. Hospitals say they are running low on medical supplies and fuel for emergency generators amid a territory-wide power blackout. Five hospitals have stopped functioning because of fuel shortages and bombing damage, the Hamas-run Health Ministry said.
Doctors Without Borders said Gaza’s health care system is “facing collapse.”
There are growing expectations of a ground offensive that Israel says would be aimed at rooting out Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., Canada and the European Union.
Israel said Friday that it doesn’t plan to take long-term control over the small but densely populated Palestinian territory.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his Cabinet late Saturday to discuss the expected invasion, Israeli media reported.Israel’s military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said the country planned to step up its airstrikes starting Saturday as preparation for the next stage of the war.
“We will deepen our attacks to minimize the dangers to our forces in the next stages of the war. We are going to increase the attacks, from today,” Hagari said, repeating his call for Gaza City residents to head south for their safety.
Israel has vowed to crush Hamas but has given few details about what it envisions for Gaza if it succeeds.
Yifat Shasha-Biton, a Cabinet minister, said there was broad consensus in the government that there will have to be a “buffer zone” in Gaza to keep Palestinians away from the border.
“We need to create a distance between the border and our communities,” she told Channel 13 TV, adding that no decisions had been made on its size or other specifics.
20 aid trucks cross border
The opening of Rafah came after more than a week of high-level diplomacy, including visits to the region by President Joe Biden and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Israel had insisted nothing would enter Gaza until Hamas released all the captives from its Oct. 7 attack on towns in southern Israel.
Late Friday, Hamas freed its first captives — an American woman and her teenage daughter. It was not immediately clear if there was a connection between the release and the aid deliveries. Israel says Hamas is still holding at least 210 hostages, though their conditions — and if they are even alive — remains unknown.
On Saturday morning, an Associated Press reporter saw the 20 trucks heading north from Rafah to Deir al-Balah, a quiet farming town where many evacuees from the north have sought shelter. Hundreds of foreign passport holders at Rafah hoping to escape the conflict were not allowed to leave.
American citizen Dina al-Khatib said she and her family were desperate to get out. “It’s not like previous wars,” she said. “There is no electricity, no water, no internet, nothing.”
The trucks carried 44,000 bottles of drinking water — enough for 22,000 people for a single day, according to UNICEF. “This first, limited water will save lives, but the needs are immediate and immense,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell.
The World Health Organization said four of the trucks were carrying medical supplies, including trauma medicine and portable trauma bags for first responders.
“The situation is catastrophic in Gaza,” the head of the U.N.’s World Food Program, Cindy McCain, told the Associated Press. “We need many, many, many more trucks and a continual flow of aid,” she said, adding that some 400 trucks were entering Gaza daily before the war.
Gaza’s Hamas-run government called for a secure corridor operating around the clock.
Hagari, the Israeli military spokesman, said “the humanitarian situation in Gaza is under control.” He said the aid would be delivered only to southern Gaza, where the army has ordered people to relocate, adding that no fuel would enter.
Biden said the United States “remains committed to ensuring that civilians in Gaza will continue to have access to food, water, medical care, and other assistance, without diversion by Hamas.”
The U.S. government would work to keep Rafah open and let U.S. citizens leave Gaza, he said in a statement.
Guterres emphasized international concern over civilians in Gaza, telling a summit in Cairo that Hamas’ “reprehensible assault” on Israel “can never justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”
Exchange hostages for fuel?
Two Egyptian officials and a European diplomat said extensive negotiations with Israel and the U.N. to allow fuel deliveries for hospitals had yielded little progress. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release information on the sensitive deliberations.
One Egyptian official said they were discussing the release of dual-national hostages in return for fuel, but that Israel was insisting on the release of all hostages.
The release of Judith Raanan and her 17-year-old daughter, Natalie, on Friday brought some hope to the families of others believed held hostage.
Rachel Goldberg, whose son is thought to have been badly wounded before he was taken hostage, said she was “very relieved” by the news but urged quick work to save others, including her son.
“I think he could be dying,” she said. “So we don’t have time.”
Hamas said it was working with Egypt, Qatar and other mediators “to close the case” of hostages if security circumstances permit.
Israel, Hezbollah trade fire
Israel has also traded fire along its northern border with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants, raising concerns about a second front opening up.
The Israeli military said Saturday that it struck Hezbollah targets in Lebanon in response to recent rocket launches and attacks with anti-tank missiles.
“Hezbollah has decided to participate in the fighting, and we are exacting a heavy price for this,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said during a visit to the border.
Hezbollah said six of its fighters were killed Saturday, and the group’s deputy leader, Sheikh Naim Kassem, warned that Israel would pay a high price if it starts a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip.
Israel ordered its citizens to leave Egypt and Jordan — which made peace with it decades ago — and to avoid travel to a number of Arab and Muslim countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Bahrain, which forged diplomatic ties with Israel in 2020. Protests against Israel’s actions in Gaza have erupted across the region.
An Israeli ground assault would likely lead to a dramatic escalation in casualties on both sides in urban fighting. More than 1,400 people in Israel have been killed in the war — mostly civilians slain during the Hamas attack.
More than 4,300 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. That includes the disputed toll from a hospital explosion.
At the summit Saturday, Egypt President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi called for ensuring aid to Gaza, negotiating a cease-fire and resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which broke down more than a decade ago. He also said the conflict would never be resolved “at the expense of Egypt,” referring to fears Israel may try to push Gaza’s population into the Sinai Peninsula.
King Abdullah II of Jordan said Israel’s attacks on Gaza were “a war crime” and slammed the international community’s response.
“Anywhere else, attacking civilian infrastructure and deliberately starving an entire population of food, water, electricity, and basic necessities would be condemned,” he said.
Over a million people have been displaced in Gaza. Many heeded Israel’s orders to evacuate from north to south within the sealed-off coastal enclave. But Israel has continued to bomb areas in southern Gaza.
A senior Israeli military official said the air force will not hit the area where aid is being distributed unless rockets, which militants are relentlessly launching at Israel, are fired from there. “It’s a safe zone,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to reveal military information.