As Gaza cease-fire is debated, a vital aid route hangs in the balance

With starvation gripping Gaza, U.S.-led negotiations to reopen the vital Rafah border crossing for aid deliveries face significant obstacles, including the question of who would control the Palestinian side of the border, officials briefed on the discussions said.

The crossing was closed by Israel after it launched a military offensive in southern Gaza early last month and seized control of the border post. Since then, Egypt has refused to send aid trucks across, saying it would only deliver supplies if Palestinians were staffing the crossing. The effect of the closure has been catastrophic, aid groups say, limiting their access to food, fuel and medical supplies.

A United Nations report released Wednesday said that more than 1 million people in Gaza are expected to “face death and starvation” by mid-July. “In the absence of a cessation of hostilities and increased access, the impact on mortality and the lives of the Palestinians now, and in future generations, will increase markedly with every day,” the report said.

The United States, Egypt and Israel are in talks to reopen the crossing, but a proposal they are discussing appears to depend on a cease-fire — a goal that, for now, seems far off. The plan calls for the crossing to be controlled by the Palestinian Authority, in cooperation with European Union border officers, according to a former Egyptian official familiar with the details.

The E.U., however, would be unlikely to send staff if the border remained an “active war zone,” a European official said. And an official for the Palestinian Authority said Israel has balked at allowing the West Bank-based government to take control of the border.

The three officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing and sensitive negotiations. A spokesman for the White House National Security Council said the United States was sending a “senior delegation” to Cairo this week to continue discussions about the crossing, calling it “critical to ensuring more humanitarian aid can flow into Gaza.”


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The Israeli prime minister’s office declined to comment.

Before Israel launched its offensive on May 6, Rafah was the most important of two southern entry points for aid, along with Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing, and the main channel for sending fuel into Gaza. Rafah was also the only route for critically injured Palestinians to leave the enclave for medical treatment abroad.

The Israeli offensive in Rafah has displaced more than 1 million Palestinians and made it increasingly difficult for humanitarian groups to reach them. As the border crossings have shuttered or become impossible to reach because of fighting, aid officials said, storage warehouses near Rafah and Kerem Shalom have been destroyed or are inaccessible.

Israel says its military operations in southern Gaza are aimed at routing the last Hamas battalions — even as the offensive’s dire consequences have intensified the international outcry over the war and sparked a new public push by President Biden for a cease-fire.

On May 20, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said he was seeking arrest warrants for Israel’s prime minister and defense minister for crimes that included starvation of civilians as a method of warfare. Days later, the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to halt its Rafah offensive and reopen the border crossing with Egypt to allow for the “unhindered” provision of aid.

Israel has rejected the actions of both courts as politically motivated, vowing to keep fighting until its objectives are achieved.

Egypt had also prohibited trucks from transiting to Kerem Shalom, but relented after a May 24 call between Biden and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, in which Biden agreed to start negotiations over the Rafah crossing. Those talks began Sunday in Cairo.

Between May 7 and 28, the number of trucks with food and other critical supplies entering Gaza — excluding commercial shipments of fuel and other goods — fell to an average of 58 per day, compared with 176 per day the previous month, according to the U.N. humanitarian agency. Aid groups have said for months that at least 500 trucks are needed each day to meet Gaza’s basic needs.

“A lethal combination of closed border crossings, ongoing airstrikes, reduced logistical capacity due to evacuation notices and a failing Israeli permission process … have created an impossible environment for aid agencies to operate effectively,” Oxfam said in a statement Tuesday.

Beyond Kerem Shalom “is an active combat zone and extremely dangerous. Long delays in Israeli approval to collect and move any aid that enters, means that missions often have to be aborted,” the group said.

The former Egyptian official said the proposal being discussed in Cairo would rely on a formula used in 2005, when Israel withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza, and Palestinian Authority officials backed by an E.U. mission managed the crossing. The arrangement ended in 2007 when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, violently expelling its rivals in the Palestinian Authority.

It was possible “there could be members of the European Union that will run the crossing to let in humanitarian aid,” the former Egyptian official said, and then distribute it to U.N. agencies. But he added that “Egypt completely refuses” any Israeli role in handling aid, or running the crossing, which is supposed to be a demilitarized zone under the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, said last week that the bloc had been “asked” to reactivate the border mission, but added that it would not participate “without a strong commitment from the Palestinian Authority” and in accordance with Israel and Egypt.

An E.U. mission would be a “civilian, i.e., nonmilitary” one, the European official stressed, supporting Palestinian border officers with training and monitoring as it did starting in 2005. “They wouldn’t be checking travel documents or operating scanners at the crossing,” the official said.

And any European deployment would require assurances that the border area was safe, the official said: “No one would send their staff into an active war zone. Security is a must.”

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Mustafa said Wednesday that his government was ready to reopen Rafah if Israeli troops withdrew, citing the 2005 arrangement. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected any role for the authority in Gaza, even after the war. It was “clear that Israel still opposes the presence of the PA at Rafah,” the Palestinian official told The Washington Post.

The official added that Israel had offered to let Palestinian Authority officers staff the crossing “without the umbrella of the PA” — or without acknowledging its affiliation — but the authority had refused.

“We rely on the Egyptian conditions, that Rafah won’t be open without Palestinian administration” in Gaza, the official said. Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the border negotiations.

With Rafah closed, the situation in southern Gaza “is as dire as it’s ever been,” said Louise Wateridge, a spokeswoman for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees. “It’s not just that people don’t have things,” she said. “Everyone there knows there is not food coming.”

“What you now have is the panic and the chaos,” she said.

Even before the Israeli offensive, the two southern crossings were not yielding enough aid because of long inspection times and other obstacles, said Ricardo Pires, a spokesman for UNICEF. “Now, there is not even that,” he said. “What we saw happening in the north” — an area the head of the World Food Program said last month had descended into famine — “has moved to the south.”

“What we are seeing now is a blockage of the humanitarian process.”

Amed Khan, an American philanthropist who has been shipping aid to Gaza throughout the war, said the shuttering of the border was the latest evidence of indifference to the plight of Gazans.

“Anyone who says the care and feeding of innocent civilians in Gaza is a priority for people in power is lying,” he said. Khan said he is now trying to ship goods from Cyprus to the Israeli port of Ashdod, for delivery to northern Gaza, where distribution had improved in recent weeks, according to aid officials. But nothing about the process was guaranteed.

“You’ve got thousands of volunteers scrambling around trying to figure out how to get aid in, and celebrating whatever little you can get in, knowing it’s not even close to being adequate,” he said.

Shira Rubin contributed to this report.

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