Biden says he has a commitment for aid to reach Gaza in the next 24 to 48 hours
Updated October 20, 2023 at 4:13 PM ET
With truckloads of aid waiting on one side and over 2 million Palestinians facing shortages of food, water and medicine on the other, all eyes Friday were watching the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza to see if a deal to deliver relief would hold.
After the White House announced the deal earlier this week to allow 20 trucks of aid into Gaza, negotiations over the logistics of the delivery remain ongoing — in part to address Israel's concerns about how to keep the aid out of the hands of Hamas, the Gaza-based militant group whose deadly surprise attack on Israel earlier this month sparked the current hostilities.
President Biden said on Friday that he believes the first 20 trucks carrying humanitarian aid shipments for Gaza will be able to pass through Egypt's Rafah crossing in the next 24 to 48 hours. Biden said roads will still need to be repaved for the supplies to cross through.
"I got a commitment from the Israelis and the president of Egypt that the crossing will be opened," Biden told reporters at the White House, while a United Nations spokesperson told Reuters on Friday that a first aid delivery was due to start "in the next day or so."
Biden's comments came as the White House asked Congress for more than $105 billion in a foreign aid. The request includes more than $14 billion for Israel and more than $9 billion for humanitarian aid for Israel, Gaza, Ukraine and other conflicts.
For now, however, it remains unclear how far the funding package will go in Congress given that the Republican-led House of Representatives remains without a speaker.
Separately on Friday, the the Israeli prime minister's office announced two Americans taken hostage by Hamas during the Oct. 7 attack have been released. In a statement, President Biden said he was "overjoyed" by the release of Judith Raanan, 59, and Natalie Raanan, 17, a mother and daughter from Illinois who had been visiting family in Israel.
Biden said his administration will continue efforts to free others abducted by Hamas.
The humanitarian crisis in Gaza
The political stalemate in the House is further complicating the effort to deliver essential supplies to Gaza — where over 2 million Palestinians face shortages of food, water and medicine.
Gaza residents are facing an increasingly acute humanitarian crisis. The territory's main power plant, desalination plants and wastewater facilities have all been unable to operate for days, the U.N. reports. Near-constant Israeli airstrikes have also destroyed thousands of homes, Palestinian officials say.
The death toll from Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip is now at least 4,137, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health, which says the figure includes 1,661 children. There are some 13,000 wounded.
Meanwhile, the number of causalities from the Hamas attack on Israel remains at more than 1,400 and the Israeli military says about 200 hostages are being held in Gaza, including more than 20 who are under the age of 18 and some 10 or 20 over the age of 60.
Church where Palestinians sought shelter is hit
Israeli airstrikes continue as conditions deteriorate in Gaza. On Thursday night, a Greek Orthodox church compound was hit. Hundreds of displaced Palestinians were sheltering in place when Saint Porphyrius was hit, according to Gaza's Interior Ministry. At least 16 Palestinians were killed in the strike, Reuters reported.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem called the violence against churches and safe havens a "war crime that cannot be ignored."
The Israel Defense Forces said it was looking into the incident.
On Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told troops to be prepared to see "Gaza from the inside" — the latest sign that a ground invasion is imminent. Israel also began evacuating a town near the northern border with Lebanon, as cross-border attacks from Hezbollah continues.
Gaza has been under total blockade by Israel since the days after the Oct. 7 attacks. Israeli officials say the siege is necessary to stamp out Hamas, which governs Gaza — and they will not allow in aid via Israel's border crossings until Hamas releases approximately 200 hostages captured during the attack.
Aid must be inspected, Egypt raises its concerns
On a brief trip to Israel this week, President Biden had worked to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to allow in aid.
Both countries have expressed concerns: Israel sought assurances that Hamas would not divert aid or use the trucks to smuggle in weapons, asking that U.N. workers inspect trucks before they entered Gaza. Egypt has said it will refuse the mass displacement of Palestinian refugees across its border.
Our trucks are loaded and ready to go to Gaza.— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) October 19, 2023
We are working with @EG_Red_Crescent and @PalestineRCS to deliver our supplies as soon as the Rafah crossing is opened, hopefully tomorrow.
We urge Israel to add fuel to the life-saving supplies allowed to enter. pic.twitter.com/sO7tzNhYvT
As of Friday, a total of about 200 trucks are waiting on the Egyptian side of the border, according to the U.N., with yet more aid stockpiled in the Egyptian city of El-Arish, about 30 miles from the Gaza border.
Earlier on Friday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who arrived at the Egyptian side of the border crossing, described the aid as "the difference between life and death" for people in Gaza and urged inspections to be loosened.
"Those verifications need to be done in a way that is practical and in a way that is expedited," Guterres said.
U.S. citizens among those trapped in Gaza
Among those desperately awaiting word of the border's status were the hundreds of U.S. citizens who have been trapped in Gaza since the outbreak of the war.
One of them, Wafaa Abuzayda, who lives in Massachusetts, was visiting family in Gaza when the war began earlier this month.
Like many people in Gaza, Abuzayda, along with her husband and 1-year-old son Yousef, moved south toward Rafah after Israel urged people to evacuate from the northern half of Gaza.
But that hasn't been safe, she said. Israeli airstrikes have continued to hit southern Gaza.
On Thursday night, a building nearby was struck, causing a window to shatter as her son was sleeping nearby, she said. "I pulled him immediately, and I hugged him. He was freaking out. He was looking at me — he doesn't know what is going on," she said. "We are not safe here."
There has been no indication if U.S. citizens would be allowed out if the Rafah crossing opens to allow in aid.
In the occupied West Bank, tensions grew overnight after a confrontation between Israeli forces and Palestinians at a refugee camp in Nur Shams, northeast of Tel Aviv near the territory's border with Israel.
An Israeli airstrike and an exchange of fire between Israeli police and Palestinians followed an Israeli search-and-arrest operation in the camp, the United Nations said. The IDF said "a number of terrorists" were killed in counterterrorism operations; Palestinian health officials reported at least 11 deaths. Israeli media report the death of one Israeli policeman.
In total, at least 80 people in the West Bank have been killed by Israeli forces since the start of the war earlier this month, according to Palestinian officials.
Additional reporting by NPR's Nina Kravinsky and Peter Kenyon in Jerusalem. Graphics contributed by Daniel Wood in Washington, D.C. contributed to this story
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.