Promised Aid to Gaza Is Stalled by Wrangling, as Conditions Worsen

Two days after President Biden said he had secured Israel’s agreement to allow food, water and medicine into the besieged Gaza Strip, and a day after aid groups were told their trucks would cross the border on Friday, nothing budged, as the powers involved continued to haggle over the details, while conditions within Gaza grew more dire.

Speaking on Friday at the frontier between Egypt and Gaza, the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, confirmed reports that Israel and Egypt had agreed a day earlier to make aid deliveries possible “with some conditions and some restrictions,” which were still being hammered out. For more than a week, there have been reports of a possible breakthrough, yet the trucks haven’t moved.

Most recently, Israel was objecting to several aspects of plans put forward by aid groups and the United Nations, according to several U.N. and European officials and diplomats familiar with talks that also involve Egypt and the United States.

Adding to the sense of desperation in Gaza, Israel is preparing for an expected ground invasion to crush Hamas, the group that controls the territory, which would make the humanitarian needs greater — and make them harder to meet. Amid a war between Israel and Hamas that has killed thousands, more than 2 million people are trapped in the territory, many of them displaced from their homes, with rapidly dwindling vital supplies.

“Behind these walls, we have 2 million people that is suffering enormously, that has no water, no food, no medicine, no fuel, that is under fire, that needs everything to survive. On this side, we have seen so many trucks loaded with water, with fuel, with medicines, with food,” Mr. Guterres said, gesturing behind him.

The trucks, he added, are “the difference between life and death for so many people in Gaza.”

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres inspects aid for Palestinians being unloaded at Al Arish airport, in Egypt, on Friday.Credit…Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

At the White House, Mr. Biden told reporters on Friday afternoon that he expected aid to begin moving within two days. He did not mention Israeli objections, but cited the need to repair bomb-damaged roads the trucks would use.

“The highway had to be repaved, and it was in very bad shape,” Mr. Biden said. “And I believe in the next 24 to 48 hours, the first 20 trucks will come across the border.”

The primary concern voiced by the Israeli government is that the aid not strengthen or fall into the hands of Hamas, whose Oct. 7 assault into Israel killed some 1,400 people and captured about 200 hostages.

Hamas on Friday released two Americans it had held captive, according to officials on both sides of the conflict, after discussions with Qatar, which has acted as an intermediary between Hamas and Washington. They were identified as Judith Raanan, 59, and her daughter, Natalie, 17, who live in the Chicago area.

The Israeli government does not want to allow fuel into Gaza, which Palestinians and aid workers say is essential, according to the diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations. Under the complete blockade imposed by Israel after the Oct. 7 attack, the territory’s lone power plant ran out of fuel last week, cutting off most electricity, and the emergency generators powering hospitals and shelters are low or have run dry.

Israel insists on taking part in inspecting aid shipments to make sure no weapons are smuggled in, rather than relying solely on others to conduct those inspections, and on preventing any of the supplies from reaching northern Gaza.

The Israeli military has directed 1.1 million civilians to evacuate northern Gaza, where Hamas’s infrastructure is concentrated, which has been the primary focus of its bombing campaign in retaliation for the Oct. 7 incursion. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled to southern Gaza, which is also being bombarded, though not as intensively.

Shani Bar says a prayer after lighting candles in honor of the hostages being held in Gaza, at a demonstration calling for their safe return, in Tel Aviv, on Friday.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

More than 4,100 people in Gaza have been killed in the conflict, according to Hamas’s health ministry, with an unknown number still buried, dead or alive, under the rubble. The Israeli military says it is aiming only at Hamas members and facilities, which can mean striking homes, schools and mosques, and it does not dispute that civilians have also been struck. Among those killed have been dozens of aid, rescue and medical workers.

On Friday, a strike hit a school-turned-shelter in central Gaza, killing six people, according to a U.N. relief agency, and another struck the compound of a Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza City, in the north, that was also sheltering displaced people, killing at least 16, according to the Gaza health ministry. Aid agencies say the war has destroyed or badly damaged a significant amount of Gaza’s housing stock.

At Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, the largest hospital in the territory, the emergency room had 60 wounded patients waiting for surgery on Friday because the operating room was overwhelmed, said Dr. Mohammad Abu Salmiya, the hospital chief. He said the hospital had turned off some elevators, water heaters and air-conditioners to conserve power, and that doctors were being forced to choose which patients to treat — and which not to — given their chances of survival and the shortage of supplies.

“The scene is very tragic and we are about to be out of control,” Dr. Abu Salmiya said in an interview. “I have never seen something like this in my life.”

The Israeli bombing campaign has prompted protests in many countries, particularly Muslim ones, and a surge of deadly violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where 13 Palestinians and one Israeli officer were killed in clashes on Thursday, according to Palestinian and Israeli officials.

Children injured by bombing in Khan Younis, on Friday.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times

The worst violence took place in the Nur Shams refugee camp, a densely populated residential area that Israeli forces raided Thursday morning, where five of those killed were children, Palestinian health authorities said. The Israelis staged simultaneous raids in Bethlehem, Hebron, Jericho, Nablus and Ramallah, searching for militants connected to Hamas.

But Palestinians in Nur Shams fought back, shooting and throwing improvised explosives at Israeli soldiers, killing one officer, the Israeli military said.

Within Israel, signs abound of preparations for a longer, larger-scale war than the country has fought in years. Some 360,000 reservists have been called to active duty, and troops and armored vehicles have been gathering for more than a week in staging areas near Gaza. Officials have indicated repeatedly that an invasion is coming, but they have left the timing in doubt.

“The order will come,” Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, told soldiers in a video distributed by his office on Thursday. “Those who now see Gaza from afar will see it from within,” he added.

On Friday, Mr. Gallant told lawmakers that after the initial campaign of strikes against Hamas, there would be a protracted series of operations to mop up “pockets of resistance,” and eventually the establishment of a “new security regime” in Gaza. Such a campaign, he added, “will not take a day, nor a week, and unfortunately, not a month.”

A trip across Israel’s roadways reveals a nation on war footing: clusters of reservists in olive-green uniforms drinking coffee at gas stations, and army jeeps zipping down major highways. In border towns close to Gaza, troops can be seen milling about or conducting training as they wait for the war’s next stage.

Israeli army 12th Brigade special forces seen train in a mock-up of a Palestinian village, at the base outside Tse’elim, Israel, on Friday.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

The expected ground invasion could mean close-quarters combat in urban neighborhoods and in Hamas’s extensive tunnel network, with heavy casualties on both sides, military analysts say.

Israel has also been evacuating northern towns near the border with Lebanon and increasing the military presence there, in response to clashes with the armed group Hezbollah, based in Lebanon, and concerns that the conflict there could worsen.

With Israeli troops sealing off most of Gaza’s land perimeter, the only potential opening is the sole official border crossing with Egypt, at the Gazan city of Rafah. There has been extensive talk of aid entering through that portal, but little said about people leaving. Egypt has said it will not open its doors to Gazan refugees. In addition, hundreds of foreign nationals who were caught in Gaza when the war began have been unable to get out.

Officials said that Egypt has heavy equipment waiting near Rafah, ready to enter Gaza and begin repairing roads that have been cratered by Israeli airstrikes. The United Nations and other aid groups have set up a logistics base in the nearby Egyptian city of Arish.

But even if aid does reach Gaza, it may not be nearly enough. Israel has agreed in general terms to only an initial group of 20 trucks, but aid groups say at least 100 per day are needed.

“What is certainly, undoubtedly needed is a steady flow of much bigger quantities of humanitarian assistance,” Janez Lenarcic, the European Union humanitarian aid commissioner, said in an interview on Friday. And, he added, “humanitarian aid should go to all places where there are people who need it.”

A message that says “We will win,” is displayed outside of the Azrieli Center in Tel Aviv, on Friday.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Vivian Yee reported from Cairo, and Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels. Reporting was contributed by Michael D. Shear, Aaron Boxerman, Ronen Bergman, Karen Zraick, Jeffrey Gettleman, Rami Nazzal, Adam Sella, Iyad Abuheweila, Farnaz Fassihi, Gaya Gupta, Liam Stack, Ben Hubbard and Patrick Kingsley

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