Why Egypt’s Rafah border crossing is vital for Gaza crisis

CAIRO — It’s been more than a week since the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt was effectively shut, following Israeli airstrikes on the main passage for any relief convoys and the exit route for people desperate to leave the besieged Palestinian territory.

As the humanitarian situation inside Gaza worsens, hundreds of tons of aid remain stuck on the Egyptian side of the crossing despite growing international calls to provide relief to Gazan civilians. Meanwhile, foreign passport holders on the Palestinian side are looking for a way out.

After visiting Israel on Wednesday, President Biden announced a deal to allow aid to flow from Egypt into the besieged and densely populated enclave via the Rafah crossing. Both he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said any deal depended on ensuring that no supplies reached Hamas.

But aid deliveries are not expected to begin before Friday, and details of Biden’s plan remain unclear — from whether essential deliveries of fuel for hospitals and water plants will be allowed to enter, to safety guarantees for aid workers.

Where is the Rafah border crossing, and why is it important to Gaza?

The crossing between the southern edge of the Gaza Strip and Egypt’s northern Sinai region is the only link from Gaza that Israel does not control. Gaza has been under a blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt since 2007, when Hamas took control of the enclave.

The Gaza Strip and its history, explained

In peacetime, the Rafah crossing serves as a vital passageway for Palestinians living outside Gaza to visit relatives there, and for residents of the strip to receive medical treatment in Egypt.

Egypt maintains tight control over the border, and people wishing to cross must get permission from Palestinian and Egyptian authorities. Northern Sinai, where Egypt has battled Islamist militants for a decade, is heavily militarized. Egypt has long feared spillover instability from Gaza.

Israel kept up deadly airstrikes, pounding Gaza and shutting down the Rafah crossing after the surprise assault by Hamas militants on Oct. 7. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

On Oct. 7, Hamas militants based in Gaza launched a multipronged assault on Israel that has killed at least 1,400 Israelis. People and goods were able to cross through Rafah for several days afterward. Rafah stopped operating on Oct. 10, when retaliatory Israeli strikes damaged the crossing.

Israel’s bombing in Gaza has wounded or killed thousands of Palestinians. Israel has also cut off food, fuel, electricity and water to the more than 2 million residents of the strip.

Drinking water is running out, and the United Nations has sounded the alarm about the potential for disease to spread without proper sanitation. Hospitals are overcrowded and running out of generators and supplies. An Israeli evacuation warning Saturday — calling for 1.1 million residents of northern Gaza to move south, ahead of an expected ground invasion — has worsened the crisis, according to aid workers. The United Nations has warned that forcible evacuation could contravene international law.

“We are on the verge of the abyss in the Middle East,” said U.N. Secretary General António Guterres on Sunday.

Hani el-Shafaay’s wife and 6-month-old daughter traveled from Egypt to Gaza a month ago to visit her family. They can no longer leave as crossings are closed. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)

The Rafah crossing is formally controlled by Egypt and Palestinian authorities in Gaza. But Israel controls the skies and continues to bomb the area.

Israeli airstrikes continued early Thursday, including on areas in the south of Gaza that Israel had designated safe zones, according to the Associated Press. The strikes hit several homes in Rafah, the town that borders Egypt, the AP reported.

Egypt also has its own political and security concerns and wants to avoid having a large number of Palestinians entering it. Authorities in Cairo have said they won’t permit foreign nationals to cross into Sinai unless there is a pause in hostilities to allow aid through, Mustapha Bakri, a member of the Egyptian parliament, told Egyptian newspaper al-Masry al-Youm.

Israeli officials said last week that no aid can enter Gaza until Israeli hostages captured by Hamas are released. Israel is also concerned about weapons being smuggled into Gaza through aid convoys. Over the weekend, officials discussed the possibility of setting up a screening mechanism that would allow the Israelis to inspect goods entering Gaza, The Washington Post reported.

But for Egypt, having Israeli inspectors operating on its soil is a non-starter.

Opening the Rafah crossing to humanitarian aid — and to foreign nationals, including the estimated 500-600 U.S. citizens trapped in Gaza, who wish to leave — was a key topic of discussion during Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s whirlwind Middle East tour in recent days.

U.S. diplomats are trying to monitor the Rafah crossing, but Egyptian officials have held them back, citing specific security threats, a State Department official told The Post on Monday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive diplomatic matter.

What is blocking the deliveries?

After Egypt agreed to open the Rafah crossing for aid deliveries, Biden said that up to 20 trucks of humanitarian aid could enter Gaza.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, said Wednesday that his country will not allow aid in through its own borders with Gaza but will not stop deliveries from Egypt — on the conditions they contain only “food, water and medicine for the civilian population” and do not reach Hamas.

In historic visit, Biden embraces Israel, raises hope for Gaza aid

But the war is continuing, and the United States on Wednesday vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a humanitarian pause in the fighting to allow aid to reach civilians.

U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths also told The Post on Wednesday that key aspects of the deal had still not been addressed — and most notably that there was still no mechanism to verify the contents of the aid shipments.

The number of trucks involved in the deliveries may also be an issue.

“We need to start with a serious number of trucks going in, and we need to build up to the 100 trucks a day that used to be the case of the aid program going into Gaza,” Griffiths said in an interview with CNN.

Khalid Zayed, the head of the Red Crescent for North Sinai, said more than 200 trucks and some 3,000 tons of aid are at or near the Rafah crossing, according to the AP, which reported that Egypt still needed to repair the road into Gaza after it was damaged in airstrikes.

Karen DeYoung, Yasmin Abutaleb in Washington, Annabelle Timsit, John Hudson in Amman, Jordan, Tyler Page in Tel Aviv, Kareem Fahim in Beirut, Kelly Kasulis Cho in Seoul and Victoria Bisset in London contributed to this report.

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