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20 trucks of aid come into Gaza, but no passage for foreign nationals seeking to leave

Aid convoy trucks cross the Rafah border from the Egyptian side on Oct. 21, 2023 in North Sinai, Egypt.
Mahmoud Khaled
Getty Images
Aid convoy trucks cross the Rafah border from the Egyptian side on Oct. 21, 2023 in North Sinai, Egypt.

Updated October 21, 2023 at 2:46 PM ET

JERUSALEM — Twenty trucks carrying medicine, medical supplies and food crossed into Gaza on Saturday morning from Egypt, marking the first humanitarian aid to arrive in the territory since an Israeli bombardment campaign began two weeks ago.

As the trucks made their way through the Rafah border, hundreds of foreign nationals gathered at the Gaza side, hoping to escape the violence that has beset the Palestinian territory. But by the afternoon, it had become clear that no one would be allowed to leave for now.

For two weeks since the Gaza-based militant group Hamas launched a wave of deadly attacks on Israel, Israel's retaliatory airstrikes have damaged and destroyed thousands of buildings across Gaza, including homes, schools and U.N.-operated shelters. Israeli military officials say the strikes are targeted at Hamas militants and infrastructure.

An Israeli siege has cut off the flow of food, water, electricity and fuel to the territory, intensifying a humanitarian crisis.

About a million Palestinians — roughly half of Gaza's population — have fled their homes to seek shelter elsewhere inside Gaza. But with borders closed, none had been able to leave the territory.

Much-needed aid, but not enough of it

Loaded on the trucks were medical supplies for trauma treatment and chronic disease, the World Health Organization said Saturday.

"These supplies are a lifeline for severely injured people or those battling chronic illnesses, who have endured a harrowing two weeks of limited access to care and severe shortages of medicines and medical supplies,"the WHO said in a statement.

The delivery also included some food, mattresses and blankets, according to aid workers at the Rafah border crossing. Notably, no fuel arrived, which aid groups say is needed to power hospitals and desalination plants for much-needed water.

Lynn Hastings, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, told NPR that the arrival of the trucks Saturday "represents a very small first but important start. Obviously it's really a drop in the bucket."

She said that in addition to water, food and medicine, fuel is also critical.

"I know that fuel is a riskier item because it can be used in a number of different ways, but without fuel we won't have the hospitals running, desalination plants won't run, hygiene will continue to suffer, and, of course, for the trucks that have to deliver the aid," Hastings said. She said the U.N. will continue to work with the Israeli government "to make sure fuel can come in safely and in a controlled manner so it's used for the purposes it is intended."

The 20 trucks represent a U.N.-brokered deal urged along by world leaders, including President Biden, who visited Israel this week. Among the concerns delaying the aid were Israel's fear that Hamas could intercept it or use the trucks to smuggle in weapons.

But aid groups have warned that 20 truckloads do not come close to addressing the humanitarian needs in Gaza, where the U.N. reports a severe shortage of potable water, food and medical supplies.

More than 100 additional trucks of aid continue to stand by on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing. Additional aid is stockpiled in nearby El-Arish, with yet more set to arrive later today and in the days to come, the WHO said.

"They are the difference between life and death for so many people in Gaza," said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during a Friday visit to the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing. "And to see them stuck here makes me be very clear: What we need is to make them move, to make them move to the other side of this wall."

In a statement Saturday, President Biden thanked the leaders of Egypt and Israel and the United Nations in allowing the assistance to go through. He added that the U.S. will "continue to work with all parties to keep the Rafah crossing in operation to enable the continued movement of aid that is imperative to the welfare of the people of Gaza."

American citizens trapped in Gaza urge the State Department to do more

U.S. officials estimate that hundreds of American citizens are stranded in Gaza. Early on Saturday morning, the U.S. State Department alerted them by email and phone call of the border's opening but warned that anyone attempting to cross should expect "a potentially chaotic and disorderly environment on both sides of the crossing."

Saturday's notice was the third such alert from the State Department since the hostilities began. But no American citizens have been allowed to cross the border.

Department officials say they are "working tirelessly" to help American citizens leave Gaza. "We continue to work urgently in partnership with Egypt and Israel to facilitate the ability of U.S. citizens and their immediate family members to exit Gaza safely and travel via Egypt to their final destinations," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Saturday.

Those who came to Rafah on Saturday told NPR they have grown skeptical of the alerts, and they urged the State Department to do more to help Americans evacuate.

Wafa Elsaka, a retired elementary school teacher from Tallahassee, Fla., answered the State Department's phone call as she already stood at the Rafah crossing. "This is the third time coming in here according to your emails to say it's open," she said. "So hopefully it's the charm."

Abood Okal, a Palestinian-American who lives in Massachusetts, had come to Gaza with his wife, Wafaa Abuzayda, and their 1-year-old son on what was supposed to be a two-week trip to visit family.

"The way that American citizens are being treated in Gaza is a shame on this government and on the State Department," he said.

Their cars are almost out of fuel, he said. With gasoline and diesel impossible to obtain in Gaza, the repeated drives to and from the border are unsustainable, he said. Food and water have also grown more difficult to find, he added.

Like many other people in Gaza, both Okal and Elsaka had moved to southern Gaza ever since Israelis urged the evacuation of the northern part of the territory.

Now, Okal and his family are among the 40 or so people staying in a single-family home in rural Rafah, he said. Elsaka said she was staying with 50 other people in a home in Khan Younis, southern Gaza's largest city.

But nowhere in Gaza is safe from Israeli airstrikes, Elsaka said. A house was struck recently only two doors down from the home where she has been staying with dozens of other people, she added.

"I'm scared when the night comes in, because we can't see where it's happening. And I'm scared when the daylight comes out, because I'm going to see what is going to happen," she said. "This is an open grave for the people in Gaza."

By the afternoon, border officials had returned the concrete bollards to the crossing, an indication that no more traffic would be allowed through. The 300 people who had come resigned themselves to the fact their stay in Gaza was not yet over.

"On one side, we remain hopeful," Okal said. "But on the other side, we have to deal with the reality that we're in, and that this might drag longer than expected."

Becky Sullivan reported from Jerusalem, Ruth Sherlock reported from Tel Aviv and Anas Baba reported from Gaza. contributed to this story

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.
Anas Baba
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