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Deal to allow aid into Gaza sealed

US, Biden broker pact to send 20 trucks from Egypt; 80 Pinoys waiting to get out

US President Joe Biden on Wednesday unveiled a deal to allow desperately needed humanitarian aid to enter war-torn Gaza, where 1 million people have fled their homes amid withering Israeli air strikes.

Some 80 Filipinos who are trapped in Gaza may be able to exit the war-torn Palestinian enclave through Egypt by late Friday to early Saturday, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said yesterday.

Foreign Undersecretary Eduardo de Vega made the statement following a report quoting Biden as saying that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has agreed to open the border.

But Biden, on the way back to Washington from Israel, said only a limited number of trucks would be allowed to cross the shuttered Rafah crossing from Egypt into Gaza from Friday.

He said this was the result of face-to-face talks in Israel and intense telephone diplomacy with Egypt.

It would be the first international relief to enter Gaza since Oct. 7, when the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas launched shock raids into Israel, killing 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and seizing about 200 hostages.

Since then, Israel has besieged the Palestinian enclave, launching wave after wave of air strikes, enforcing a blockade, and deploying tens of thousands of troops to the border in preparation for an expected ground assault.

Filipinos in Rafah

De Vega said at least 80 Filipinos are expected to exit the Rafah Border Crossing connecting Egypt and Gaza.

He added that there are 135 Filipinos waiting at the border, along with 41 Palestinian spouses.

He said there is no guarantee that Palestinians will be allowed to cross the border.

“Here’s the problem: They already said that last weekend, but it did not push through. So Israel was saying ‘Just be ready at a moment’s notice.’ So any time the border may be opened, we are ready,” De Vega said.

De Vega applauded the “bayanihan” (cooperation) spirit among the dozens of Filipinos trapped in Gaza as they remain deprived of food, water, and other basic supplies due to a blockade.

“The bayanihan spirit is alive among our nationals there,” Deva Vega said, quoting the Philippine Embassy in Egypt.

De Vega said some Filipinos there are seeking repatriation while still awaiting the border opening of Egypt with Gaza.

AID EN ROUTE. Humanitarian aid provided by the United Nations is loaded onto a United Arab Emirates Air Force C-130H-30 Hercules turboprop military transport aircraft at the Dubai International Airport before its departure for Cairo, Egypt on October 19. Meanwhile, a convoy of trucks carrying aid supplies for Gaza from Egypt waits on the main Ismailia desert road, about 300 kms east of the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip, on the way to the Rafah crossing. AFP

The lack of food, fuel, electricity, and water supplies to Gaza “is a daily occurrence faced by” Filipinos in the Palestinian territory, the DFA official said.

It only worsened when the Israeli government sealed off all its borders, blocking all the humanitarian supplies coming in amid Israel’s war with Hamas, the de-facto government of Gaza.

“So it’s not a new development. It is a reality that they have faced and they have overcome, especially at this time when they have been under attack,” De Vega said in a press conference.

Some Filipinos who have a house in southern Gaza offered shelter to those who fled the north.

Filipinos there are also sharing food and other supplies, De Vega said.

He quoted Ambassador to Egypt Ezzedin Tago as saying Filipinos there are “helping each other to survive this ordeal.”

The United Nations and humanitarian groups have begged for the military stranglehold on Gaza to be eased, to allow supplies of water, food, fuel and medicines to enter.

Top UN humanitarian official Martin Griffiths on Wednesday said the situation in Gaza was dire, with hospitals overwhelmed, more than 3,000 Gazans killed and 12,500 injured.

“The pace of death, of suffering, of destruction cannot be exaggerated,” he said.

Despite the devastation, more than 100 trucks have been queued for days on the Egyptian side of the border waiting to enter Gaza.

Israel fears that aid deliveries could be used as cover to bring in weapons, or could be diverted into the hands of Hamas —which governs the enclave.

Israel has already hit the border crossing with multiple air strikes since this phase of the decades-old conflict began.

Egypt controls the border and fears throwing open the gates would bring tens of thousands of refugees to its territory.

After what he described as “blunt” negotiations and a telephone call with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Biden said about 20 trucks would enter Gaza to start with, with more to come if all sides agree.

“We want to get as many of the trucks out as possible,” Biden said aboard Air Force One.

“If Hamas confiscates it or doesn’t let it get through… then it’s going to end because we’re not going to be sending any humanitarian aid to Hamas,” Biden said.

Israeli officials said the deliveries would be limited to food, water, and medicine, and that the effort was conditional on aid not being used by Hamas.

The UN’s Griffiths estimated that about 100 trucks per day were needed to meet the needs in Gaza.

Fog of war

Biden had made a visit to Israel Wednesday, expressing solidarity following the Hamas attacks, trying to gauge Israel’s war objectives and hoping to prevent a spillover into regional conflict.

He warned Israel to be cautious as it tries to remove the threat from Hamas.

“After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. While we sought justice we also made mistakes,” he said.

After decades in which Israel has gradually improved ties with its neighbors, the Hamas attacks and Israel’s furious response have rekindled old tensions.

Anger spiked on Wednesday, with protesters pouring onto the streets in cities from Tripoli to Tehran after a strike on Gaza’s Ahli Arab hospital.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza claimed 471 people had died as a result, while blaming an Israeli air strike.

Israel denied responsibility, saying an initial investigation showed the strike was caused by a malfunctioning rocket fired by the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad.

Like Hamas, Islamic Jihad is proscribed as a terrorist group by the United States and other Western governments.

Neither the toll nor the provenance of the strike could be immediately or independently verified.

One European intelligence agency told AFP: “There weren’t 200 or even 500 deaths, more likely between 10 and 50.”

Biden said the Pentagon also believed the strike was caused by an errant Palestinian rocket.

“Our Defense Department says it’s highly unlikely that it was the Israelis. It would have had a different footprint,” he said, acknowledging that many around the region would still be skeptical.

“I can understand why, in this circumstance, they wouldn’t believe. I can understand that,” he said, insisting: “I don’t say things like that unless I have faith in the source.”

Eyewitness Adnan al-Naqa said that as he entered the hospital, he heard an “explosion” and “saw a massive fire.”

“The entire square was on fire. There were bodies everywhere, children, women and elderly people.”

In the hours following the incident, AFP reporters saw scores of bodies cloaked in bloodstained sheets and white plastic lined the floors at the nearby Al-Shifa hospital, where victims were said to have been taken.

At the Ahli Arab hospital the day after the blast the charred husks of several vehicles littered the blackened courtyard.

The Israeli military pointed to the fire damage and the absence of a large impact crater as evidence that it was a rocket misfiring.

“When a bomb, a big bomb like the ones we use hits the ground, it creates a very big crater,” Israel Defense Forces spokesman Jonathan Conricus.

Hamas has dismissed Israel’s claim of a misfiring rocket, saying its “outrageous lies do not deceive anyone.”

It also slammed the United States, accusing it of being complicit in the ongoing strikes on Gaza. AFP, Rey E. Requejo

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