Humanitarian aid enters Gaza as Egypt opens border crossing

Author: CBS News
Published: Updated:
Gaza-Egyptian border (CREDIT: CBS)

The border crossing between Egypt and Gaza opened on Saturday to let a trickle of desperately needed aid into the besieged Palestinian territory for the first time since Israel sealed it off in the wake of Hamas’ bloody rampage two weeks ago.

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. Israel is still launching waves of airstrikes across Gaza as Palestinian militants fire rocket barrages into Israel.

The opening came after more than a week of high-level diplomacy by various mediators, including visits to the region by U.S. President Joe Biden and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Israel had insisted that nothing would enter Gaza until some 200 people captured by Hamas were freed, and the Palestinian side of the crossing had been shut down by Israeli airstrikes.

Egypt’s state-owned Al-Qahera news, which is close to security agencies, said just 20 trucks had crossed into Gaza on Saturday, out of more than 200 trucks carrying roughly 3,000 tons of aid that have been positioned near the crossing for days. The trucks were carrying 44,000 bottles of drinking water from the United Nations children’s agency — enough for 22,000 people for a single day, it said. 

“This first, limited water will save lives, but the needs are immediate and immense,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell.

Hundreds of foreign passport holders also waited to cross from Gaza to Egypt to escape the conflict. 

The death toll has now reached 4,385 — including 1,756 children and 967 women — in addition to 13,561 injured, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza during a news conference on Saturday. Seventy percent of the casualties are women, children and and elderly people, the ministry spokesperson said.

U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a statement on Saturday supporting the arrival of relief, saying “We urge all parties to keep the Rafah crossing open to enable the continued movement of aid that is imperative to the welfare of the people of Gaza.”

“The United States welcomes the delivery of a 20-truck convoy carrying much needed humanitarian assistance to the people in Gaza, the first since Hamas’s horrific October 7 terrorist attack on Israel,” the statement read. “We thank our partners in Egypt and Israel, and the United Nations, for facilitating the safe passage of these shipments through the Rafah border crossing. With this convoy, the international community is beginning to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza that has left residents of Gaza without access to sufficient food, water, medical care, and safe shelter.”

Meanwhile, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen welcomed the opening of Rafah, calling it “an important first step that will alleviate the suffering of innocent people.”

The World Health Organization said four of the 20 trucks that crossed through Rafah on Saturday were carrying medical supplies, including medicines for the treatment of chronic diseases for 1,500 people, essential supplies for 300,000 people for three months, trauma medicine and supplies for 1,200 people and 235 portable trauma bags for first responders.

The World Food Program said it has another 930 metric tons of emergency food waiting to be brought in through Rafah. It said it needs to replenish its “rapidly diminishing supplies” as it expands food assistance from 520,000 people to 1.1 million in the next two months.

The U.N. said life-saving supplies would be delivered to the Palestinian Red Crescent medical service. But Cindy McCain, the head of the U.N.’s World Food Program, said the aid was insufficient. 

“The situation is catastrophic in Gaza,” McCain said. “We need many, many, many more trucks and a continual flow of aid.”

The Hamas-run government in Gaza also said the limited convoy “will not be able to change the humanitarian catastrophe,” calling for a secure corridor operating around the clock.

“The bread supply is running short: of the five flour mills in the Gaza Strip only one is operating due to lack of fuel and electricity. Few bakeries are working. People are lining up for hours to get bread,” Shaza Moghraby, Head of Communications World Food Program, said in a statement to U.N. correspondents.  “The massive population displacement will only increase already high humanitarian needs – especially as water supplies run low, with the risk of disease and dehydration.”

“What we need is unimpeded and sustained access – this is a good start but a drop in the bucket,” Moghraby told CBS News on Saturday. 

The head of the U.N.’s humanitarian agency, Martin Griffiths said that the delivery resulted from “intense negotiations” with all sides and that “the humanitarian situation..has reached catastrophic levels.” 

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, an 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 the territory.

The opening came hours after Hamas released an American woman and her teenage daughter, the first captives to be freed after the militant group’s Oct. 7 incursion into Israel. It was not immediately clear if there was any connection between the two.

Hamas released Judith Raanan and her 17-year-old daughter, Natalie, on Friday for what it said were humanitarian reasons in an agreement with Qatar, a Persian Gulf nation that has often served as a Mideast mediator.

The two had been on a trip from their home in suburban Chicago to Israel to celebrate Jewish holidays, the family said. They were in the kibbutz of Nahal Oz, near Gaza, when Hamas and other militants stormed into southern Israeli towns, killing hundreds and abducting at least 210 others.

Hamas said it was working with Egypt, Qatar and other mediators “to close the case” of hostages if security circumstances permit.

Intense airstrikes were reported across Gaza overnight and into Saturday. The Hamas-run Health Ministry said 345 people were killed in Gaza in the last 24 hours, and that seven hospitals are out of service after being damaged in strikes or running out of fuel.

The Hamas-run Housing Ministry said at least 30% of all homes in Gaza have been destroyed or heavily damaged in the war. That figure does not include the destruction of entire neighborhoods, which the U.N. refugee agency now describes as “inaccessible mounds of rubble.”

There are growing expectations of a ground offensive that Israel says would be aimed at rooting out Hamas, an Islamic militant group that has ruled Gaza for 16 years. Israel said Friday it does not plan to take long-term control over the small but densely populated Palestinian territory.

Israel has also traded fire along its northern border with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, raising concerns about a second front opening up. The Israeli military said Saturday it struck Hezbollah targets in Lebanon in response to recent rocket launches and attacks with anti-tank missiles.

Israel issued a travel warning on Saturday, ordering 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.

A potential Israeli ground assault is likely to 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 incursion. Palestinian militants have continued to launch unrelenting rocket attacks into Israel — more than 6,900 projectiles since Oct. 7, according to Israel.

More than 4,100 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Health Ministry run by Hamas. That includes a disputed number of people who died in a hospital explosion earlier this week. The ministry says another 1,400 are believed to have been buried under rubble, alive or dead.

Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Friday laid out a three-stage plan, beginning with Israeli airstrikes and “maneuvering” — a presumed reference to a ground attack — that would aim to root out Hamas. Next would come a lower intensity fight to defeat remaining pockets. Then a new “security regime” would be created in Gaza along with “the removal of Israel’s responsibility for life in the Gaza Strip,” Gallant said.

He did not say who Israel expected to run Gaza if Hamas is toppled or what the new security regime would entail.

Israel occupied Gaza from 1967 until 2005, when it pulled up settlements and withdrew soldiers. Two years later, Hamas took over. Some Israelis blame the withdrawal from Gaza for the five wars and countless smaller exchanges of fire since then.

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi proposed a very different scenario on Saturday as he hosted a summit to discuss the war. He called for ensuring aid to Gaza, negotiating a cease-fire and resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which last 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.

Over a million people have been displaced in Gaza. Many heeded Israel’s orders to evacuate from north to south within the sealed-off enclave on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. But Israel has continued to bomb areas in southern Gaza where Palestinians had been told to seek safety, and some appear to be going back to the north because of bombings and difficult living conditions in the south.

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