Blinken says the crossing to Egypt will open to aid as Israel prepares to strike Gaza
Updated October 16, 2023 at 4:39 AM ET
JERUSALEM — Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza will reopen to humanitarian aid for Palestinians currently under siege by Israeli forces.
Palestinians continue to flee from northern Gaza ahead of an expected Israeli strike against Hamas targets in the area, one week after Hamas launched a multi-pronged attack inside Israel, killing more than 1,400 people.
"Rafah will be open," Blinken told reporters during a stop in Egypt on Sunday.
"We're putting in place — with the United Nations, with Egypt, with Israel, with others — the mechanism by which to get the assistance in and to get it to the people who need it."
Egypt had been allowing some aid to pass into Gaza through the Rafah crossing but stopped those shipments since Tuesday following Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza side of the junction.
Blinken also said it was critical that Americans and their family members in Gaza be able to evacuate ahead of the Israeli offensive. U.S. officials estimate there are 500-600 U.S. citizens in Gaza.
In a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi on Sunday, Blinken highlighted the Biden administration's focus on stopping Hamas attacks against Israel and also on preventing the hostilities from spreading throughout the region.
"The Secretary and President Sisi agreed on the importance of addressing the humanitarian situation in Gaza to ensure assistance can reach people who need it and help keep civilians out of harms way," State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller added.
The Israeli military said on Sunday it would continue to allow Gazans to evacuate south and hundreds of thousands had already moved. On Friday, 1.1 million people living in the north of Gaza were told to evacuate.
The IDF on Sunday again urged Gaza residents to move from the northern part of Gaza to the south and said that it would not carry out any operations along the evacuation route during a three-hour period midday.
"Be assured, Hamas leaders have already ensured their safety and that of their families," the IDF said in its statement.
The Israeli military said it received a report from a Gaza resident that Hamas had confiscated residents' personal belongings in order to prevent them from evacuating.
NPR contacted Gaza resident Haneen Okal on Saturday, who was stuck at the Rafah gate in the south of Gaza.
"Lots of people are waiting here in front of the Palestinian gate. They all are waiting to get out of here, but the Palestinians are not here to open the gate and the Egyptians are not there yet too from the Egyptian side. So we are all waiting, what's going to happen? Nobody has any information," she said.
Israeli military prepares for an assault on Gaza City
The Israel Defense Forces said Sunday it was "in formation" to strike Gaza City, as troops massed on the border ready for an apparent ground invasion.
Israeli military spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said that northern Gaza will be the center of Israel's next counterattack in an effort to strike Hamas leaders.
"Gaza City is where the focus and the hub of Hamas activities are, that is where most of the commanders are, most of their infrastructure and their ability to continue to operate," Conricus said Saturday night.
It comes as a second U.S. carrier strike group — the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier strike group — has been ordered to begin moving into the Eastern Mediterranean Sea in support of Israel, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced Saturday.
Medics in Gaza warned on Sunday that thousands could die if hospitals run out of fuel and basic supplies. Water and electricity are scarce.
Thousands have been killed over the last week
Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip have killed 2,750 Palestinians, with 9,700 wounded, the Gaza Health Ministry announced. One million people have been displaced, according to the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees.
On Monday, the Israeli military said 199 hostages are being held in Gaza by Hamas and other militants, far higher than previous estimates. The military did not specify whether that number includes foreigners, or say who is holding them.
Previously, the IDF said that the number of confirmed Israeli hostages being held in Gaza was 126. Hamas has previously claimed that 13 hostages have been killed within Gaza by Israeli airstrikes. It said there were foreigners among those who died, without specifying their nationalities.
"Hamas is responsible for the well-being of those people," IDF spokesman Peter Lerner said of the hostages, speaking Monday on the BBC. "They need to be released, they need to be released now."
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told NPR on Sunday afternoon that "less than a handful" of Americans are believed to be held hostage in Gaza and that the Biden administration hasn't ruled out using the U.S. military to help rescue them.
"We are working very diligently to get enough information to make a policy decision about how to get them back with their families. We just don't have enough information about where they are, what conditions they're being held in" to make those decisions, Kirby said.
"Nothing is more important to President Biden than the safety and security of Americans that are being held hostage or wrongfully detained overseas," he said.
Israel has launched a massive response to the deadly attack carried out on Oct. 7 by Hamas militants that left more than 1,400 people dead in Israel, including 30 U.S. citizens. Thirteen American nationals remain unaccounted for in the attack, a State Department spokesperson said Sunday afternoon.
The Israeli military also said on Sunday that at least 286 of its soldiers have been killed in the past week.
In addition, at least 55 people have been killed in the West Bank, with more than 1,200 wounded, the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates announced.
The IDF said Sunday that nine rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israeli territory and that the Israeli military struck the site where the attack originated.
Global leaders respond to the unfolding situation in Gaza
President Biden on Sunday named veteran diplomat David Satterfield as the special envoy for Middle East humanitarian issues and tasked him with responding to the ongoing turmoil in Gaza.
"Special Envoy Satterfield will lead U.S. diplomacy to urgently address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, including work to facilitate the provision of life-saving assistance to the most vulnerable people and promote the safety of civilians, in coordination with the United Nations and U.S. partners," Blinken said in a statement.
Top Egyptian officials have also offered to host an international summit to address "the developments and future of the Palestinian issue."
Pope Francis said in a post on X (formerly Twitter) that he was following "with great sorrow" the latest developments in the conflict.
"I renew my appeal for the freeing of the hostages and I strongly ask that children, the sick, the elderly, women, and all civilians not be made victims of the conflict," he said.
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