As first aid reaches Gaza, U.N. appeals for more

CAIRO — Aid trucks drove across Egypt’s Rafah crossing into Gaza for the first time since the start of the war on Saturday, as world leaders and diplomats attempted to build momentum for sustained humanitarian relief during a summit in Cairo.

Volunteers and aid workers applauded and cheered when the first 20 trucks crossed the border. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres welcomed Saturday’s deliveries, but he and others warned the aid was vastly insufficient to meet demand for much-needed relief in Gaza. Before the war, hundreds of trucks with relief supplies crossed into Gaza from various points.

Guterres, who participated in the Cairo summit attended by world leaders and diplomats, called for “immediate, unrestricted and sustained humanitarian aid” for the territory that Israel cut off from food, water and fuel almost two weeks ago. Palestinians in Gaza said Saturday that the besieged coastal enclave is on the verge of collapse.

After two weeks of almost no diplomatic progress, the first aid deliveries Saturday — and the release Friday of two American hostages by Hamas — raised hopes that there could be room for humanitarian negotiations. The sense of urgency was compounded by worries that Israel could launch a ground invasion of Gaza.

At the summit convened by Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi in Cairo, a range of Arab leaders conveyed a unified message: The attacks on civilians in Gaza must stop and humanitarian aid should be allowed in. Arab leaders urged the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to be rekindled somehow.

In photos: Humanitarian aid arrives in Gaza as Rafah crossing reopens

Sitting directly across from the foreign ministers of France, Germany and other Western nations, Arab leaders leveled bitter accusations over what they described as European and American double standards.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II warned the West it was “dangerous” to overlook the suffering of Palestinian civilians, comparing Western leaders’ strong condemnations of violations in other recent conflicts — an apparent reference to Russia’s strikes on civilians in Ukraine — with what he said was a lack of similar condemnations of Israel’s siege and bombardment of Gaza.

The summit coincided with the two-week mark of the war, touched off by a blitz into Israel by Hamas militants. The conflict has killed more than 1,400 people in Israel and Hamas is believed to hold more than 200 hostages; Palestinian officials say Israeli strikes have killed 4,385 people in Gaza.

President Biden and many European leaders have voiced staunch support for Israel, but they have also repeatedly appealed for humanitarian relief in Gaza and the protection of civilians as the death toll in Gaza mounts. Some critics in the Middle East and elsewhere accuse Western leaders of failing to put enough pressure on Israel to rein in its bombardment of Gaza or lift its siege.

“We must pursue all possible avenues to protect civilians, especially children,” Charles Michel, President of the European Council, said at the Saturday summit, adding that Israel’s defense must be “within the framework of international law.”

The limited breakthrough on Saturday came after President Biden announced earlier this week that he had reached a deal with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow aid delivery through Egypt into Gaza, subject to strict conditions. Israel had initially said it would not allow any electricity, water, fuel and other essentials into Gaza until all the hostages seized during Hamas’s attack were released.

Palestinian officials, aid groups, and the U.N. have described the humanitarian conditions in Gaza as increasingly catastrophic, with food in markets and warehouses fast disappearing, and fuel and water running out.

The first convoy on Saturday included “lifesaving supplies” provided by the Egyptian Red Crescent and the United Nations, U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths said in a statement. The Hamas-controlled government press center in Gaza said authorities were waiting for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to distribute the aid.

One of the key obstacles as leaders and diplomats wrangled over the conditions for entry of aid over the past days was the U.S. and Israeli condition that no deliveries reach Hamas. More than 200 trucks with humanitarian deliveries remained stuck on the Egyptian side for days. Most were still waiting to enter the strip on Saturday.

Nebal Farsakh, spokesperson for the Palestinian Red Crescent, said by phone from Ramallah that she was disappointed that Saturday’s convoy did not provide fuel, which the World Health Organization said was vital to include to run hospital generators, ambulances and desalination plants. Israel’s government remains opposed to fuel deliveries.

“Obviously, this is not enough,” Cindy McCain, the World Food Program’s executive director, said in an interview Saturday. Three trucks’ worth of WFP emergency rations were among the 20 vehicles able to cross on Saturday, she said. But she added: “We need to feed about 800,000 to 1 million people within Gaza. And we can’t do that with 20 trucks.”

She added that aid delivery was expected to “begin in earnest” on Monday, though it will not immediately reach the level of 100 trucks per day, which the United Nations has been pushing for. The safety of staff and the people receiving aid remains a primary concern, McCain said, and she has been trying to secure guarantees that food aid can be distributed as safely as possible.

Historic church sheltering civilians struck in deadly Gaza City blast

Humanitarian workers face grave risks in Gaza. Seventeen people working for the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA have been killed since the war began, the agency’s commissioner-general Philippe Lazzarini said, adding that the true figure is likely to be higher.

The Israeli strikes in Gaza have provided new momentum for Arab leaders calling for a two-state solution. In his opening remarks, Sisi called for “the urgent start of negotiations to revive the peace process.”

“We must not, we cannot, write off this conflict as too far gone, for the sake of both the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Jordan’s King Abdullah said. “The time to act is now,” he concluded.

Morocco, which normalized relations with Israel in 2020, sent its top diplomat to the conference to convey a similar message. Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita called for “a Palestinian state based on the June 4, 1967, borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, living side-by-side with Israel.”

Saudi Arabia — which had been in talks to normalize relations with Israel, a key foreign policy priority of the Biden administration — called for an “immediate halt” to the fighting, with Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan supporting efforts to help “the Palestinians to establish their independent sovereign state” based on the 1967 borders.

Any renewal of a peace process faces many hurdles, including opposition on both sides from factions such as Hamas and right-wing Israelis who that have supported expanded settlements in the West Bank.

At a campaign event on Friday, Biden said the Hamas attack earlier this month was partially aimed at disrupting the U.S.-facilitated negotiations with Saudi Arabia, Reuters reported.

Israeli officials updated the number of hostages it said are being held captive in the Gaza Strip to 210 on Saturday.

At a news conference, Israel Defense Forces spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said that the figure could still increase, as Israeli authorities work to pin down which of the 100 to 200 people missing after the Hamas attack may have been kidnapped.

The figure did not include Judith Raanan and her daughter Natalie Raanan, the two American hostages freed Friday by Hamas after mediation by Qatar. In a statement, Biden said he was “overjoyed” about the return of the two Americans, promising them the “full support” of the U.S. government.

The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem released a photo of them, showing them safe, smiling and speaking on the phone with Biden.

Uri Raanan, Judith’s ex-husband and Natalie’s father, breathed a deep sigh of relief as he spoke to reporters in Illinois. “I have been waiting for this moment for a long time,” Uri Raanan told reporters. “I have not been sleeping for two weeks. I spoke with my daughter earlier today. She sounds very good. She looks very good. She was very happy, and she’s waiting to come home.”

Noack reported from Islamabad, Pakistan. Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo, Victoria Bisset in London, Miriam Berger in Ramallah, West Bank, Hazem Balousha in Nuseirat, Gaza, contributed to this report.

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