Gaza aid stalled at Egypt border amid wrangling at Rafah

RAFAH, Egypt — Trucks of desperately needed aid for Gaza remained stuck on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing on Friday, a holdup that United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said left him “broken hearted” during a brief and chaotic visit to the highly militarized zone.

President Biden announced during a high-profile visit to Israel a deal to get aid flowing into the besieged enclave, but days later wrangling over the conditions continued.

“We are witnessing a paradox: Behind these walls, we have 2 million people that is suffering enormously — that has no water, no food, no medicine, no fuel; that is under fire; that needs everything to survive,” Guterres said. “On this side, we have seen so many trucks, loaded with water, with fuel, with medicines, with food — exactly the same things that are needed on this side of the wall.”

“It is impossible to be here and not to feel a broken heart,” he said.

U.N. officials had hoped that Guterres’s media tour Friday would coincide with the resumption of trucks driving across the border — a moment of triumph and relief after days of high-level, high-stakes diplomacy in Cairo and Tel Aviv. Instead, Guterres found himself facing stalled trucks and angry Egyptian aid workers, frustrated at the wait to bring assistance to Palestinians just a few miles away.

In a demonstration clearly blessed — and seemingly organized — by the Egyptian authorities, aid workers waving Palestinian and Egyptian flags chanted, “We stand for Gaza!” as soldiers in fatigues watched.

The aid convoy — and the difficult dealmaking to get it across the border — represent the opening gambit in efforts to seek a steady flow of relief supplies into Gaza. On Saturday, Egyptian officials plan to host a “summit for peace,” which Guterres is scheduled to attend before returning to New York.

At a meeting with top European Union envoys in Washington, Biden suggested the aid would begin moving Saturday or Sunday and blamed the delays on the need to repair roads that were in “very bad shape.”

Inside Gaza, however, Palestinians told The Washington Post that distributing the aid would be extremely dangerous for them without a halt in Israeli airstrikes, which have continued across the coastal enclave, including in areas in the south that Israel said would be considered safe-zones.

In a briefing Friday, Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Israeli planes had been bombing Gaza “at a rate not seen for decades,” ahead of the next stage of operations, which is expected to include a ground invasion.

Under a deal reached with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden said 20 trucks would be permitted to cross the border into the besieged Gaza Strip. He reemphasized his commitment to the deal Friday, saying “the people of Gaza urgently need food, water and medicine” in a statement.

That’s a fraction of the more than 200 trucks from the United Nations, Egyptian Red Crescent and other sources that are ready to bring supplies into Gaza. Guterres said the details of how the aid will be verified and whether it will be a continuous flow remain under discussion.

Ahmed Abu Zeid, a spokesman for Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, pinned the blame on “Israel’s targeted attacks & refusal of aid entry” in a statement posted to X Friday.

“Rafah crossing is open and Egypt is not responsible of obstructing third-country nationals exit,” he added, referring to another stalled deal to allow U.S. nationals to leave Gaza through Rafah.

U.S.-approved aid faces several hurdles to reach desperate Gazans

Guterres acknowledged that a mechanism for ensuring that no illicit goods are smuggled in along with the aid has proved to be an obstacle in negotiations.

“We are now actively engaged with” Israel, Egypt and the United States, he said. “Those verifications need to be effective, and at the same time, those verifications need to be done in a way that is practical and in a way that is expedited.”

The United Nations has offered up their inspectors, who have conducted similar checks on aid entering northwest Syria. But a key sticking point has been that the Israelis want “direct eyes” on the crossing, said an official with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the delicate negotiations. “The question is where and how,” the official said.

Egypt has signaled that hosting Israeli inspectors on its soil is a non-starter.

Frustrations are mounting among Egyptian aid workers and volunteers who have been waiting at the border for days to move critical supplies.

“We demand the opening of the crossing so we can support our Palestinian brothers,” said Abdelrahman El-Sayid, 22, a volunteer with Abnaa Sinai, a regional logistics company that also does charity work. He had been stuck there for four days, waiting to bring medicine and food aid across to Gaza, he said.

Ahead of his visit to the crossing, Guterres inspected a flight at the Arish airport carrying supplies destined for Gaza. The plane included 44 tons of food supplies donated by the United Arab Emirates, 17 tons of materials for tents and 10 tons of emergency trauma kits to be distributed by the United Nations and the Egyptian Red Crescent.

By midafternoon Friday, a Jordanian military plane had arrived bearing more aid.

“We need to have as quickly as possible the first convoy, and we need to create all the guarantees for that first convoy not to be the last,” Gutteres told reporters on the tarmac.

Gaza is fast running out of vital food, fuel, water and medical supplies. Before the latest war broke out, about 455 trucks a day entered the blockaded coastal enclave through Rafah and Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing.

Since Oct. 7, Israel has tightened its siege on Gaza, and airstrikes have damaged parts of the Rafah crossing on the Gazan side. The war has also displaced around 1 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million people. More than half of the displaced are sheltering in United Nation schools, hospitals and storage centers, according to the U.N.’s refugee agency.

Al-Qudra said Friday that seven hospitals were completely closed due to Israeli shelling and another 21 medical centers shut after running out of fuel. Fuel for the generators at al-Shifa Hospital, the main hospital in Gaza City and one of the few remaining places with electricity, will run out within 24 hours, Guillemette Thomas, Doctors Without Borders medical coordinator for Palestine, said Friday.

From Rafah, Guterres thanked the Egyptian government for coordinating aid collection. “We are not in a no man’s land. We are in the land of a sovereign country, Egypt” — an apparent reference to concern President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi has raised about Israel pushing Palestinian refugees to Sinai in large numbers.

Sisi, who wants to avoid at all costs the type of skirmishes taking place along the Israel-Lebanon border, warned Wednesday that such an exodus could shatter the peace between Egypt and Israel.

Egypt has reinforced its borders since the war began, according to the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, which has a team monitoring the border region. The U.N. convoy carrying Guterres passed troops and tanks standing in formation along the highway leading to Rafah. At one point during Guterres’s speech, a surveillance drone buzzed overhead.

As Israel pummels besieged Gaza, Egypt resists opening up to refugees

In the meantime, Palestinians in Gaza are spending hours each day waiting in line for meager supplies.

Hani Mohammed, 36, is living with his two children and 35 other family members in an apartment west of Gaza City. He tried to move south after Israel demanded 1 million Palestinians leave Gaza City and other parts of northern Gaza, but he could not find an affordable taxi as prices for fuel have skyrocketed.

“My kids are super scared,” he said. “I cry to myself when I’m on my own. I can’t protect the family. Maybe I was wrong when I decided to have children in the first place when I live in Gaza. They are punishing the civilians with no guilt. I don’t know who is alive and who is not. We listen to the radio when we charge the batteries from the neighbor who has solar power.”

“I need someone to answer me,” he continued. “What’s the guilt of those kids to be terrified or killed?”

Berger reported from Ramallah. Balousha reported from Nuseirat refugee camp. Marisa Iati in Washington contributed to this report.

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