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Trucks with humanitarian aid for the Gaza Strip enter from Egypt in Rafah today AP Photo/Fatima Shbair/Alamy Stock Photo
gaza strip

First humanitarian aid rolls into Gaza as Israel vows to increase air strikes

UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said the convoy “must not be the last”.

LAST UPDATE | 21 Oct 2023

THE FIRST AID trucks arrived in the war-torn Gaza Strip from Egypt today, bringing humanitarian relief to the Hamas-controlled Palestinian enclave suffering what the UN chief labelled a “god awful nightmare”.

Israel has vowed to step up its punishing strikes in Gaza to increase pressure on Hamas, a military spokesman told a press conference this evening.

Since the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October, which left 1,400 dead, Israel has launched devastating air and ground bombardments of Gaza. The Hamas authorities say 4,385 people have died.

Israel has also massed tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks along the Gaza border for a widely anticipated ground invasion.

“We have to enter the next phase of the war in the best conditions, not according to what anyone tells us. From today, we are increasing the strikes and minimising the danger,” military spokesman Admiral Daniel Hagari told a press conference today.

Twenty trucks from the Egyptian Red Crescent, which is responsible for delivering aid from various UN agencies, passed through the Rafah border crossing from Egypt into Gaza today.

The crossing — the only one into Gaza not controlled by Israel — closed again after the trucks passed.

The lorries had been waiting for days on the Egyptian side after Israel agreed to allow aid to enter following a request from its top ally the United States.

UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said the convoy “must not be the last” and that the delivery would start “a sustainable effort to provide essential supplies” to Gaza.

UN chief Antonio Guterres warned on Friday that the aid was “the difference between life and death” for many Gazans, more than one million of whom have been displaced.

“Much more” aid needs to be sent, he told a peace summit in Egypt today.

A joint statement issued by the World Health Organization, the World Food Programme, the UNDP, UNFPA and Unicef this evening called for “a humanitarian ceasefire, along with immediate, unrestricted humanitarian access throughout Gaza to allow humanitarian actors to reach civilians in need, save lives and prevent further human suffering”.

The statement said the aid carried in the 20 trucks allowed to enter today “is only a small beginning and far from enough”.

“More than 1.6 million people in Gaza are in critical need of humanitarian aid. Children, pregnant women and the elderly remain the most vulnerable. Nearly half of Gaza’s population are children…

“Gaza was a desperate humanitarian situation before the most recent hostilities. It is now catastrophic. The world must do more.”

‘Reeling in pain’

As international tensions soar, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hosted a peace summit in Cairo today attended by regional and some Western leaders.

“The time has come for action to end this god awful nightmare,” Guterres told the summit, calling for a “humanitarian ceasefire”.

The region “is reeling in pain and one step from the precipice”, he added.

Egypt, historically a key mediator between Hamas and Israel, has urged “restraint” and called to restart long-frozen peace talks.

But diplomatic efforts to end the violence have made little headway, with Israel and its enemy Iran, a supporter of Hamas and other armed groups, among those absent from the Cairo talks.

‘Sliver of hope’

A full-blown Israeli land offensive carries many risks, including to the more than 200 hostages Hamas took during their raid and whose fate is shrouded in uncertainty.

So the release of the first two hostages — US mother and daughter Judith and Natalie Raanan — offered a rare “sliver of hope”, Mirjana Spoljaric, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said.

US President Joe Biden said he was “overjoyed” and thanked Qatar, which hosts Hamas’ political bureau, for its mediation in securing the release.

He said he was working “around the clock” to win the return of other Americans being held.

Natalie Raanan’s half-brother Ben told BBC News he felt an “overwhelming sense of joy” at the release after “the most horrible of ordeals”.

Hamas said Egypt and Qatar had negotiated the release and it was “working with all mediators to implement the movement’s decision to close the civilian (hostage) file if appropriate security conditions allow”.

Traumatised families with loved ones missing in Gaza demanded more action.

“Absolutely nothing has been done,” Assaf Shem Tov, whose nephew was abducted from a music festival where hundreds were killed by Hamas, said Friday.

“We ask humanity to interfere and bring back all those young boys, young girls, mothers, babies.”

Crucial aid

In Gaza, Israeli jets continued the relentless bombing campaign, with the military saying it hit more than 100 Hamas targets overnight.

Almost half of Gaza’s residents have been displaced, according to the United Nations.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees said today that 17 staff have been confirmed killed in the war, warning the actual numbers “are likely to be higher”.

At least 30% of all housing in Gaza has been destroyed or damaged, the UN says, citing local authorities, and thousands have taken refuge in a tent city set up in southern Gaza’s Khan Yunis.

Fadwa al-Najjar said she and her seven children walked for 10 hours to reach the camp, at some points breaking into a run as air strikes descended around them.

“We saw bodies and limbs torn off and we just started praying, thinking we were going to die,” she told AFP.

“I would have preferred not to leave, to have stayed at home and died there,” her daughter Malak added.

Israel’s operation will take not “a day, nor a week, nor a month,” the country’s defence minister Yoav Gallant warned Friday, and will result in “the end of Israel’s responsibilities in the Gaza Strip”.

An Israeli foreign ministry source, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said Israel envisaged “handing over the keys” to neighbouring Egypt, which has strongly rejected attempts to place Gaza’s residents under its responsibility.

Regional tensions flare

“I’m afraid that the current destruction is part of a clear plan for people to have no place left to live,” Omar Ashour, a retired general in Gaza, said.

“This will cause a second Nakba,” he added, referring to the 760,000 Palestinians who were expelled from or fled their homes when Israel was created in 1948.

The United States has moved two aircraft carriers into the eastern Mediterranean to deter Iran or Lebanon’s Hezbollah, both Hamas allies, amid fears of a wider conflagration.

Fire across Israel’s border with Lebanon continued overnight though, with one Israeli soldier killed, Israeli radio said, and the military announced it hit Hezbollah targets after rocket and anti-tank missile fire.

Israel yesterday ordered the 25,000 residents of the northern town of Kiryat Shmona to evacuate.

Violence has also flared in the West Bank, where 84 Palestinians have been killed since 7 October, according to the Palestinian health ministry.

Protests have erupted over the conflict across the region, and Israel on Saturday urged its citizens to immediately leave Egypt and Jordan.

© AFP 2023 with reporting by Órla Ryan