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Rafah: No way in for Gaza aid, no way out for Palestinians

So far, calls from international leaders and relief officials for a humanitarian corridor have shown no progress. 

Palestinians with dual citizenship gather outside Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the hope of getting permission to leave Gaza, amid the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip October 16, 2023. Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters
Palestinians with dual citizenship gather at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the hope of getting permission to leave the Gaza Strip on 16 October 2023.

Aid flights are landing at el-Arish international airport in northern Egypt, but so far there’s no agreement to allow urgently needed relief supplies into the Gaza Strip, where needs are soaring as Israel intensifies its bombardment ahead of an expected ground invasion.

Establishing a humanitarian corridor into the densely populated enclave is challenging because you need some kind of ceasefire, according to Marco Sassòli, an international law expert and professor at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. 

“This presupposes an agreement between the parties, because both must promise that they don’t take advantage of this corridor to invade or to break out,” Sassòli told The New Humanitarian. 

Israel began its bombardment after gunmen from Hamas, the political and militant group that governs Gaza, stormed into Israel on 7 October, killing more than 1,400 people – many of them civilians – and taking nearly 200 hostages. 

More than 2,800 people in Gaza, which has a population of around 2.3 million, have been killed in Israeli strikes and at least 10,000 have been wounded. Israel has also cut off water and electricity and blocked the entry of food, medicine, and fuel into the enclave since 9 October, sparking concerns about a growing humanitarian catastrophe and allegations of collective punishment.

Aid organisations and world leaders are increasingly calling for the establishment of a humanitarian corridor into Gaza.

Discussions have been underway for several days to try to open one through the Rafah border crossing, with the United States – which has voiced its full support for Israel’s response to the Hamas attack – raising the point with Israeli officials several times in recent days. On 15 October, Washington appointed a special envoy to “urgently address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza”.

Egypt has told the international community to direct aid flights to el-Arish airport, some 45 kilometres from Rafah, and has said it will help facilitate the delivery of humanitarian supplies to Gaza. However, Egypt has said it will not accept a mass exodus of Palestinian civilians onto its territory, and Israel is reportedly so far not cooperating with efforts to open a humanitarian corridor.

Israel has bombed the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing several times in the past week, rendering it inoperable, according to Egyptian officials. However, oil trucks bearing UN flags reportedly entered Egypt from Gaza via Rafah on 16 October to pick up fuel, with hospitals in the enclave expected to run out of supplies to power their generators within 24 hours. But there were no immediate reports of them returning into Gaza with fuel.

Meanwhile, Gaza’s overwhelmed hospitals are also reportedly critically low on medical supplies and water. UN shelters across the territory housing many of the one million Palestinians who have been displaced are reportedly out of water. And residents who have so far been spared the worst effects of the bombing say that water is only coming from their pipes for maybe 30 minutes a day and it is too contaminated with sewage and sea water to drink. 

Food is also reportedly in short supply, and hundreds of thousands of people have fled toward the southern Gaza Strip after Israel ordered around 1.1 million people to evacuate the north of the enclave. 

A spokesperson from UNICEF told The New Humanitarian that the children’s aid agency was also running out of supplies in Gaza. “We ask for humanitarian corridors, for pauses to be able to deliver the aid that is needed by the children and the families in Gaza,” the spokesperson said. “This is a matter of life or death for the Gazan civilians.” 

Ivan Karakashian, advocacy manager at the Norwegian Refugee Council, said NRC’s staff in Gaza have been unable to reach people in need. “Without humanitarian access or safety guarantees, we cannot stage humanitarian relief. We need all parties to provide safe passage and to respect civilian sites,” Karakashian told The New Humanitarian. 

Humanitarian corridor and safety concerns

If a humanitarian corridor is to be established, it will almost certainly be through the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza. There are only two other border crossings into Gaza: Erez and Kerem Shalom. They connect Gaza to Israel, and both are shut.

This map shows the Gaza Strip. There is a burgundy line outlining the strip. There are locator dots on Eraz, Rafah and Kerem Shalom. The area of the Mediterranean Sea where the Israeli government has limited access is highlighted in red dots.

Israel has maintained a blockade of Gaza since 2007, tightly controlling what goods and people are able to enter and exit as well as access to the enclave by sea. Egypt has cooperated with Israel in maintaining the blockade, and supplies entering through Rafah need to be approved by Israel. 

Negotiations to establish a humanitarian corridor reportedly involve allowing Israel to inspect relief trucks entering Gaza. Israeli officials have also previously said that it will not restore electricity and water supply to Gaza or allow aid to enter until Hamas releases the hostages it took on 7 October. Egypt has apparently made allowing the exit of Palestinian dual nationals from Gaza into its territory conditional on Israel allowing the passage of aid into the enclave. 

The World Health Organization said that relief supplies, including medical supplies for some 300,000 patients, are waiting to enter Gaza through Rafah. Jordan, Türkiye, the United Arab Emirates, the WHO, and the Red Cross have already sent relief flights to el-Arish airport, and the Red Crescent has warehouses full of aid in the city of el-Arish, CNN reported

But the entry of aid is only one issue hampering the humanitarian response in the enclave: Israel has reportedly so far refused to provide guarantees that it will not bomb trucks carrying relief. 

“We need safe access for our teams to move around Gaza. We have staff, we have supplies, but we need the safety guarantees and the humanitarian space to carry out our work safely,” Ala’a Nayel, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told The New Humanitarian. 

Nayel added that ICRC was “speaking with the parties and others with influence about our humanitarian concerns in Israel and Gaza as well as the rights of civilians under international humanitarian law”.

ICRC defines humanitarian corridors as “agreements between parties to the armed conflict to allow for safe passage for a limited time in a specific geographic area. They can allow civilians to leave, humanitarian assistance to come in or allow for the evacuation of the wounded, sick or dead,” according to the organisation’s website

Whether or not an agreement is in place, “civilians… must be protected from the effects of hostilities, must be allowed to evacuate from a besieged area, and humanitarian organisations must be able to work whenever and wherever necessary to provide protection and assistance to people”, ICRC says.

Egypt’s concerns 

While aid is waiting on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing to enter Gaza, thousands of people – including foreign nationals and dual citizens – have gathered on the Palestinian side of the crossing, hoping to be able to leave. 

Egypt has long-standing security and political concerns about Palestinians entering the country from the Rafah border crossing, according to Jacob Eriksson, a lecturer in post-war recovery studies at the University of York in Britain. 

Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the domestic branch of which Egypt has outlawed as a terrorist organisation. “[Egypt] is concerned about the passage of Hamas operatives over the crossing into Egypt,” Eriksson explained. “The Egyptian government closely monitors and controls access and traffic to try and ensure that security threats are not present at the Rafah crossing.”

“Given the history of displacement in this conflict, and the fact that there has been talk of a second Nakba, there’s a concern that the infrastructure of the Gaza Strip will be completely demolished.” 

A speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 8 October telling Palestinians in Gaza to “get out of there now” touched off concerns about a mass exodus from the enclave into Egypt. And on 10 October, a spokesperson for the Israeli military said, “Rafah crossing is still open. Anyone who can get out, I would advise them to get out.” Later, on X, formerly known as Twitter, Israel’s ambassador to Egypt said that Israel had “not asked the Palestinians to move" to Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. 

While supporting the opening of the Rafah border crossing to aid, Egypt has been clear that it is firmly opposed to allowing corridors into its territory for civilians to leave. Human rights advocates have raised concerns that, should a large number of Palestinians from Gaza flee to Egypt, Israel would not allow them to return once the current round of hostilities has ended, raising the prospect of ethnic cleansing

“Given the history of displacement in this conflict, and the fact that there has been talk of a second Nakba, there’s a concern that the infrastructure of the Gaza Strip will be completely demolished, that it is basically not going to be fit for human residents anymore, and that there are going to be millions of Palestinian refugees who will then not be able to return to the Gaza Strip,” Eriksson said.

“There is significant concern both by Egyptian officials, and also widely within the Arab world, that Israel is looking to alter the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the expense of the neighbouring Arab states.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has used these concerns to back his country’s decision not to allow in refugees from Gaza. 

Egypt has also recently taken in over 250,000 Sudanese refugees since a civil war broke out in April this year while facing a severe economic crisis. El-Sisi is also standing for re-election in December this year, which he is widely expected to win despite increasing social unrest

Stuck in Egypt

Meanwhile, several hundred Palestinians from Gaza who were in Egypt for medical treatment, business, and other reasons have found themselves stranded in el-Arish city, separated from their families and unable to re-enter Gaza since 7 October. 

Aylol Abu Elwan, who had travelled to Egypt for medical treatment, said he had rushed back to Rafah when the hostilities began but was unable to enter Gaza after Israel bombed the crossing. Many of the Palestinians in el-Arish are running out of money because they hadn’t anticipated having to pay for accommodation and food for so long.

As unbelievable as it may seem to those watching the unfolding bombardment, 27-year-old Abu Elwan said: “We are sitting waiting with anxiety because we want to enter Gaza to see our family and check up on them.”

“We have not been able to communicate with them a lot,” he added. “Hopefully, a solution arrives that ends the bombardment and the war, and that lets us all return to our homes and see our family and loved ones.” 

Additional reporting and editing by Eric Reidy, in Boston, United States.

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