19 Oct 2023

Egypt to restart aid to Gaza as protests rock Middle East - Biden

7:41 pm on 19 October 2023
US President Joe Biden speaks to members of the Media during his flight returning from Israel aboard Air Force One, on October 18, 2023. Joe Biden on October 18 delivered full US backing for Israel in person, on a solidarity visit in which he blamed Islamist militants for a deadly rocket strike on a Gaza hospital and announced the resumption of urgent aid to the besieged Palestinian enclave. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

US President Joe Biden speaks to members of the media during his flight returning from Israel aboard Air Force One, on 18 October. Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP

Egypt agreed to reopen its border crossing with the Gaza Strip to allow aid to reach Palestinians, the US said, as the humanitarian crisis worsened for the 2.3 million people trapped in the enclave and anti-Israel protests flared across the Middle East.

The region remained volatile in the aftermath of an explosion at Gaza's Al-Ahli al-Arabi hospital late on Tuesday (local time), which Palestinian officials said killed 471 people and blamed on what they said was an Israeli air strike.

Israel and the US said the cause was a failed rocket launch by Islamist militants in Gaza, who denied responsibility. Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat said the death toll from the blast was only "several dozen".

Demonstrations erupted in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and elsewhere amid outrage across the Middle East over the hospital explosion. Lebanese security forces fired tear gas and water cannon at protesters throwing projectiles near the US embassy in Beirut, TV footage showed.

Israeli forces shot dead two Palestinian teenagers in the West Bank during protests, Palestinian officials said, while Palestinian official news agency WAFA said Israeli forces killed a Palestinian man in the West Bank village of Budrus.

While flying home from a less than eight-hour visit to Israel, US President Joe Biden discussed aid for Gaza with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi by phone late on Wednesday.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in November 18, 2019.

Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Photo: AFP / Odd Andersen

Biden told reporters that Sisi agreed to open the Rafah crossing from Egypt to Gaza to allow about 20 trucks carrying humanitarian aid into the enclave, where people are desperately short of food, water, fuel and other essentials after Israel unleashed a blockade and air strikes 12 days ago.

Biden did not give a timeline for the opening, but US national security spokesman John Kirby said it would occur in coming days following repairs to the road.

Amid fears the conflict could spread beyond Gaza, Biden had planned to meet Arab leaders. But Jordan called off his planned summit there with Egypt and the Palestinian Authority after the hospital blast.

UN favours 100 trucks a day

While the agreement was a breakthrough, the flow of relief will still fall short of the perceived need.

UN aid chief Martin Griffiths told the Security Council on Wednesday that the organisation sought to bring aid deliveries to Gaza back to 100 trucks a day, the level before the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Biden was due to speak from the White House at 8pm ET on Thursday (0000 GMT on Friday) about the US response to Hamas- attacks against Israel and Russia's war against Ukraine, the White House said. Also on Thursday, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was due to visit Israel.

Egypt, which previously said the Rafah crossing was not technically closed but was inoperable due to Israeli barrages, said Sisi and Biden agreed to provide aid to Gaza "in a sustainable manner." They were coordinating an aid effort with international organisations under the United Nations.

During Biden's visit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said Israel would let food, water and medicines reach southern Gaza via Egypt.

Biden faced intense global pressure to secure an Israeli commitment to ease the plight of civilians in the small, densely populated coastal enclave. Biden pledged US$100 million in US assistance for civilians in Gaza and the West Bank.

Mark Negev, an adviser to Netanyahu, said on CNN that Israel had agreed to allow aid to Gaza via Egypt "in principle" but "we don't want to see Hamas stealing aid that's directed towards the civilian population. It's a real problem."

Israel reiterated it would not allow in aid through its crossing with Gaza until Hamas released about 200 hostages seized during its cross-border attack on Israel on 7 October. Militants killed about 1400 Israelis in the assault.

En route to Washington, Biden told reporters he was blunt with Israel about the need to facilitate aid to Gaza. Earlier he said he would ask Congress for an unprecedented aid package for Israel this week, although no action is possible until the House of Representatives elects a new speaker.

A source familiar with the matter said Biden was considering asking for US$10 billion in aid for Israel as soon as Friday.

Biden said the United States would do everything it could to ensure Israel was safe while also urging Israelis not to be consumed by rage, reiterating that the vast majority of Palestinians were not affiliated with Hamas.

The Gaza health ministry said 3478 Palestinians have been killed and 12,065 injured in Israeli air strikes on the besieged enclave since 7 October.

"What sets us apart from the terrorists is we believe in the fundamental dignity of every human life," Biden said. If that was not respected, "then the terrorists win".

- This article was originally published by Reuters.

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