Israel Says It Will Step Up Attacks as First Aid Convoy Reaches Gaza

Photo for The Washington Post by Loay Ayyoub.
The entry of humanitarian aid arrives through the Rafah crossing into the Gaza Strip on Saturday.

CAIRO – Aid trucks arrived in Gaza on Saturday for the first time since the start of the war, entering through Egypt’s Rafah border crossing as world leaders gathered in Cairo and Israel said it was increasing its attacks on Hamas.

The convoy to Gaza was carrying “lifesaving supplies,” including food, water and medicine, U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said in a statement, adding that the crisis had reached “catastrophic levels.”

Palestinians warned Saturday that the battered enclave, home to 2.3 million people, was about to collapse, with more than half of the population displaced by the fighting. At the same time, Israel said it was ramping up attacks on Gaza to prepare for the next stages of the war.

“We will deepen our attacks to minimize the dangers to our forces in the next stages of the war,” Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said in a briefing. “We are going to increase the attacks, from today,” he said, according to the Associated Press.

In Cairo, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres called for “immediate, unrestricted and sustained humanitarian aid” for Gaza, saying he welcomed the deliveries on Saturday, while warning that they were vastly insufficient to help alleviate the crisis. Israel announced a “full siege” of Gaza nearly two weeks ago, after Hamas militants staged a surprise attack on military bases and communities near the border, killing at least 1,400 people.

“The opening of this essential supply route was the result of days of diplomatic engagement at the highest levels,” President Biden said in a statement, referring to the aid convoy. “I made it clear from the outset of this crisis . . . that humanitarian assistance was a critical and urgent need that had to get moving.”

The emergency relief Saturday – and release Friday of two American hostages held by Hamas – raised hopes that there could be room for humanitarian negotiations.

At the summit convened by Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi in Cairo, a range of Arab leaders conveyed a unified message: The attacks on civilians in Gaza must stop and humanitarian aid should be allowed in. Arab leaders urged the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to be rekindled somehow.

Sitting directly across from the foreign ministers of France, Germany and other Western nations, Arab leaders leveled bitter accusations over what they described as European and American double standards.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II warned the West that it was “dangerous” to overlook the suffering of Palestinian civilians, comparing Western leaders’ strong condemnations of violations in other recent conflicts – an apparent reference to Russia’s strikes on civilians in Ukraine – with what he said was a lack of similar condemnations of Israel’s siege and bombardment of Gaza.

The summit coincided with the two-week mark of the war, touched off by a blitz into Israel by Hamas militants. The conflict has killed more than 1,400 people in Israel and Hamas is believed to hold more than 200 hostages; Palestinian officials say Israeli strikes have killed 4,385 people in Gaza.

U.S. Chargé d’ Affaires Ambassador Beth Jones said the United States was grateful for the summit, telling those gathered, “We are still the world’s largest contributor of aid to the Palestinian people and remain committed to their aspirations for a two-state solution.”

Biden and many European leaders have voiced staunch support for Israel, but they have also repeatedly appealed for humanitarian relief in Gaza and the protection of civilians as the death toll there mounts. Some critics in the Middle East and elsewhere accuse Western leaders of failing to put enough pressure on Israel to rein in its bombardment of Gaza or lift its siege.

“We must pursue all possible avenues to protect civilians, especially children,” Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said at the Saturday summit, adding that Israel’s defense must be “within the framework of international law.”

Saturday’s limited breakthrough came after President Biden announced this week that he had reached a deal with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow aid delivery through Egypt into Gaza, subject to strict conditions. Israel initially said it would not allow any electricity, water, fuel and other essentials into Gaza until all the hostages seized during Hamas’s attack were released.

The Hamas-controlled government press center in Gaza said Saturday that authorities were waiting for UNRWA, the U.N. relief agency for Palestinian refugees, to distribute the aid.

One of the key obstacles as leaders and diplomats wrangled over the conditions for entry of aid over the past days was the U.S. and Israeli condition that no deliveries reach Hamas. More than 200 trucks with humanitarian deliveries remained stuck on the Egyptian side for days. Most were still waiting to enter the strip Saturday.

Nebal Farsakh, spokesperson for the Palestinian Red Crescent, said by phone from the West Bank city of Ramallah that she was disappointed that Saturday’s convoy did not provide fuel, which the World Health Organization said was vital to include for hospital generators, ambulances and desalination plants. Israel’s government remains opposed to fuel deliveries.

“Obviously, this is not enough,” Cindy McCain, the World Food Program’s executive director, said in an interview Saturday. Three trucks’ worth of WFP emergency rations were among the 20 vehicles able to cross Saturday, she said. But she added: “We need to feed about 800,000 to 1 million people within Gaza. And we can’t do that with 20 trucks.”

She added that aid delivery was expected to “begin in earnest” Monday, though it will not immediately reach the level of 100 trucks per day, which the United Nations has been pushing for. The safety of staff and the people receiving aid remains a primary concern, McCain said, and she has been trying to secure guarantees that food aid can be distributed as safely as possible.

Humanitarian workers face grave risks in Gaza. Seventeen people working for UNRWA have been killed since the war began, agency commissioner-general Philippe Lazzarini said, adding that the true figure is likely to be higher.

Gaza’s largest medical complex, al-Shifa hospital, has become a magnet for desperate residents even as the hospital’s staff struggled with shrinking supplies.

Mahmoud Jendiya, 40, a barber in Gaza City’s Shejayea neighborhood, drew electricity from the hospital to operate a set of clippers to earn income to feed his children. “Our homes have gone,” he said. “They were totally destroyed. . . . We flee to a home, but it gets bombed, so we flee to another place. Where shall we go? We will not migrate. We will die on our land.”

Eissa Doghmoush, 27, said he and his family eat one meal a day “if we are lucky.”

“A deep sadness is evident on people’s faces,” he said.

The Israeli strikes in Gaza have provided momentum for Arab leaders calling for a two-state solution. In his opening remarks, Sisi called for “the urgent start of negotiations to revive the peace process.”

“We must not, we cannot, write off this conflict as too far gone, for the sake of both the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Jordan’s King Abdullah said. “The time to act is now,” he concluded.

Morocco, which normalized relations with Israel in 2020, sent its top diplomat to the conference to convey a similar message. Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita called for “a Palestinian state based on the June 4, 1967, borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, living side-by-side with Israel.”

Saudi Arabia – which had been in talks to normalize relations with Israel, a key foreign policy priority of the Biden administration – called for an “immediate halt” to the fighting, with Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan supporting efforts to help “the Palestinians to establish their independent sovereign state” based on the 1967 borders.

Any renewal of a peace process faces many hurdles, including opposition on both sides from factions such as Hamas and right-wing Israelis who that have supported expanded settlements in the West Bank.

At a campaign event Friday, Biden said the Hamas attack this month was partially aimed at disrupting the U.S.-facilitated negotiations with Saudi Arabia, Reuters reported.

Israeli officials updated the number of hostages it said are being held captive in the Gaza Strip to 210 on Saturday.

At a news conference, Hagari, the Israel Defense Forces spokesman, said that the figure could still increase, as Israeli authorities work to pin down which of the 100 to 200 people missing after the Hamas attack may have been kidnapped.

The figure did not include Judith Raanan and her daughter Natalie Raanan, the two American hostages freed Friday by Hamas after mediation by Qatar. In a statement, Biden said he was “overjoyed” about the return of the two Americans, promising them the “full support” of the U.S. government.

The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem released a photo of them, smiling and speaking on the phone with Biden.

Uri Raanan, Judith’s ex-husband and Natalie’s father, breathed a deep sigh of relief as he spoke to reporters in Illinois. “I have been waiting for this moment for a long time,” Uri Raanan told reporters. “I have not been sleeping for two weeks. I spoke with my daughter earlier today. She sounds very good. She looks very good. She was very happy, and she’s waiting to come home.”