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Why aid for Gaza is still stuck near Rafah crossing in Egypt

Why aid for Gaza is still stuck near Rafah crossing in Egypt

CAIRO — It’s been a week since the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt was effectively shut, following Israeli airstrikes on the main passage for possible relief convoys and an exit route for people desperate to leave the besieged Palestinian territory.

As the humanitarian situation inside Gaza worsens, hundreds of tons of aid remain stuck on the Egyptian side of the crossing despite growing international calls to provide relief to Gazan civilians. Meanwhile, foreign passport holders on the Palestinian side are looking for a way out.

Questions and confusion remain over why Rafah is still closed.

On Monday — following reports that Egypt, Israel and the United States had reached a deal to reopen the crossing — trucks filled with aid lined the road in Arish, the closest city in Egypt, while foreigners and dual nationals crowded the gates on the Palestinian side. But Israel and Hamas denied that an agreement was reached.

Marathon talks between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet, which stretched into early Tuesday, yielded no announcement on a deal — even as trucks carrying aid began moving from Arish closer to the Rafah crossing. The aid trucks later turned around.

Why is the Rafah crossing so important?

The crossing between the southern edge of the Gaza Strip and Egypt’s northern Sinai region is the only link from Gaza that Israel does not control. Gaza has been under a blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt since 2007, when Hamas took control of the enclave.

In peacetime, the Rafah crossing serves as a vital passageway for Palestinians living outside Gaza to visit relatives there, and for residents of the strip to receive medical treatment in Egypt.

Egypt maintains tight control over the border, and people wishing to cross must get permission from Palestinian and Egyptian authorities. Northern Sinai, where Egypt has battled Islamist militants for a decade, is heavily militarized. Egypt has long feared spillover instability from Gaza.

On Oct. 7, Hamas militants based in Gaza launched a multipronged assault on Israel that has killed at least 1,400 Israelis. People and goods were able to cross through Rafah for several days afterward. Rafah stopped operating on Oct. 10, when retaliatory Israeli strikes damaged the crossing.

Israel’s bombing in Gaza has wounded or killed thousands of Palestinians. Israel has also cut off food, fuel, electricity and water to the more than 2 million residents of the strip.

Drinking water is running out, and the United Nations has sounded the alarm about the potential for disease to spread without proper sanitation. Hospitals are overcrowded and running out of generators and supplies. An Israeli evacuation warning Saturday — calling for 1.1 million residents of northern Gaza to move south, ahead of an expected ground invasion — has worsened the crisis, according to aid workers.

“We are on the verge of the abyss in the Middle East,” said U.N. Secretary General António Guterres on Sunday.

The Rafah crossing is formally controlled by Egypt and Palestinian authorities in Gaza. But Israel controls the skies, and continues to bomb the area. About 80 people were killed in strikes on Rafah and the nearby Gaza town of Khan Younis in the past 24 hours, the Hamas-run Interior Ministry wrote on Facebook on Tuesday afternoon local time.

“There is no authorization for the safe passage of the multitude of lorries and trucks that are amassed between Arish and the border crossing in Rafah, waiting to enter under safe conditions,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told the BBC on Tuesday.

But Egypt has its own political and security concerns and wants to avoid having a large number of Palestinians crossing into Egypt. Authorities in Cairo have said they won’t permit foreign nationals to cross into Sinai unless there is a pause in hostilities to allow aid through, Mustapha Bakri, a member of the Egyptian parliament, told Egyptian newspaper al-Masry al-Youm.

Israeli officials said last week that no aid can enter Gaza until Israeli hostages captured by Hamas are released. Israel is also concerned about weapons being smuggled into Gaza through aid convoys. Over the weekend, officials discussed the possibility of setting up a screening mechanism that would allow the Israelis to inspect goods entering Gaza, The Washington Post reported.

But for Egypt, having Israeli inspectors operating on its soil is a non-starter.

Opening the Rafah crossing to humanitarian aid — and to foreign nationals, including Americans, wishing to exit Gaza — was a key topic of discussion during Blinken’s whirlwind Middle East tour in recent days.

U.S. diplomats are trying to monitor the Rafah crossing, but Egyptian officials have held them back, citing specific security threats, a State Department official told The Post on Monday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive diplomatic matter.

Where do negotiations stand?

After Blinken met with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi in Cairo on Sunday, he said that “Rafah will be opened” and that aid will get “to the people who need it.”

President Biden appointed former ambassador David Satterfield on Sunday to lead the United States’ humanitarian efforts related to the conflict. Satterfield was dispatched to Egypt to help coordinate aid.

On Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Israel encouraged Americans in Gaza to move toward the crossing, amid reports that it might open. But Israel and Hamas said they had not agreed to a temporary cease-fire to allow in aid.

Martin Griffiths, the U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, was scheduled to arrive in Cairo on Tuesday, followed by U.N. chief Guterres on Wednesday to make the case for an urgent humanitarian corridor to Gaza.

“There’s a lot of finger-pointing about who’s responsible, but ultimately the people who are in a position to make those decisions aren’t making those decisions right now,” said Richard Brennan, regional emergency director for the World Health Organization’s eastern Mediterranean office.

The issue is likely to come up during Biden’s scheduled trip to Israel and then Jordan, where he will meet with Arab leaders, including Egypt’s Sisi on Wednesday.

Karen DeYoung, Annabelle Timsit and John Hudson contributed to this report.

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