Biden: Main goal of Israel trip was to secure entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza

US president says Netanyahu didn't push back, as doing so would squander international credibility; 20 trucks expected to enter via Rafah Friday, with more in future

US President Joe Biden speaks to members of the media during his flight returning from Israel aboard Air Force One, on October 18, 2023. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

US President Joe Biden suggested while on the way back from his wartime visit to Tel Aviv on Wednesday that the main reason for the whirlwind trip was to coax Israel and Egypt to allow the entry of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip.

“When we took off, my goal was multifold, but basically to get humanitarian aid into Gaza and to get as many Americans out who wanted to get out… as possible,” Biden told reporters during a rare visit to the press section on Air Force One.

The president also highlighted the importance he placed on meeting with Israeli survivors of the October 7 Hamas onslaught, in which some 1,400 people were killed and over 200 taken hostage into Gaza. But his remarks revealed the level of Biden’s concern regarding the dangers for Gazans as Israel pursues its offensive to topple Hamas, despite his administration also broadcasting steadfast support for Jerusalem, which has included significant military aid.

The already-strained humanitarian situation in Gaza has alarmingly worsened since the Hamas assault, with Israel announcing a siege of the enclave, shutting off the supply of fuel, electricity and water as the IDF has carried a near-constant aerial bombardment. According to the Hamas-run health ministry, 3,785 Palestinians have been killed, including many civilians, a toll that’s expected to rise considerably once Israel launches a ground offensive.

Israel says it will continue its military campaign until it topples Hamas and is unwilling to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza from its own borders until the hostages are released.

But after Biden met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli war cabinet on Wednesday, Jerusalem announced that it had agreed not to block the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza from Egypt.

“We got a commitment… from the Israelis, including their unanimous vote of their war cabinet and the prime minister,” Biden told reporters aboard Air Force One.

“I don’t know what you picked up in Israel, but I got no pushback,” he added, noting that he was “very blunt with the Israelis” but that Netanyahu still “stepped up.”

A trilateral committee of Israel, the United States and Egypt was formed to facilitate and monitor the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza through Cairo’s Rafah crossing, a UN official told The Times of Israel Thursday.

After securing the commitment from Israel, Biden got on the phone with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi to urge him to open Egypt’s Rafah crossing into Gaza so the aid could get into the enclave. Cairo has kept Rafah closed, pointing to repeated Israeli strikes near the checkpoint and voicing fears that Israel may be hoping to permanently drive Palestinians out and into Egypt’s Sinai desert.

But during their call, Biden said Sissi agreed to open Rafah and allow up to 20 trucks of humanitarian aid into Gaza for the first time since the war broke out — still a modest number, given that the UN says 100 trucks a day will be needed to help rehabilitate the enclave. He suggested that the number of trucks allowed in would increase in the future and hailed Sissi for being so “accommodating.”

“My point to everyone is: If you have an opportunity to alleviate the pain, you should do it. Period. If you don’t, you’re going to lose credibility worldwide,” the president said, confirming previous reporting that he told Netanyahu that allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza would be critical for pushing back on international criticism of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, particularly as it weighs sending in ground troops.

“Israel has been badly victimized, but… if they have an opportunity to relieve the suffering of people who have nowhere to go… it’s what they should do,” he continued. “If they don’t, they’ll be held accountable in ways that may be unfair, but that’s what [they should do].”

Tents for Palestinians seeking refuge are set up on the grounds of a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) center in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 19, 2023. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Biden said his newly appointed envoy for Mideast humanitarian issues David Satterfield was currently in Cairo to coordinate the effort, which included patching up the roads adjacent to Rafah that were damaged by the IDF bombings, to have the crossing open by Friday.

The president clarified that Rafah would only be open for aid to flow into Gaza, not for civilians to flee the enclave.

Based on the mechanism negotiated by the US, UN staffers will be responsible for distributing the aid once it is in the Strip.

A convoy of trucks carrying aid supplies for Gaza from Egypt waits on the main Ismailia desert road, about 300 kilometers east of the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip, on the way to the Rafah crossing on October 16, 2023. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)

“If Hamas… doesn’t let [the aid] get through or just confiscates it, then it’s going to end,” the president said. “That’s the commitment I’ve made.”

“I came to get something done. I got it done,” Biden declared.

He acknowledged that there had been a lengthy discussion in the White House about whether he should make the trip because his presidency would be blamed if he failed to secure the entry of humanitarian aid.

As for efforts to evacuate Gazans out of the enclave to safety, Biden said he was still working on this goal and was optimistic.

“I’m hopeful we can get some Americans out as well of Gaza… through other means as well,” he said without elaborating.

War erupted on October 7, as some 2,500 Hamas terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, slaughtering some 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and seizing over 200 hostages of all ages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.

Israel has vowed to eradicate Hamas, and says it is targeting all areas of Gaza where Hamas operates, while seeking to minimize harm to civilians.

Asked about his meetings with the survivors and first responders to the Hamas massacre in southern Israel, he recalled how he gave similar one-on-one time to the victims of mass shootings in the US.

US President Joe Biden meets with victims’ relatives and first responders who were directly affected by the Hamas attacks, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“I learned a long time ago… when someone is going through something that is beyond their comprehension… if they see someone who they think understands or maybe [has] been through something… it gives them some sense of hope,” said Biden, who lost his first wife and daughter in a 1972 car crash.

“I always get criticized sometimes by my staff because… I stay for three or four hours and answer all their questions. But it matters. It matters a lot,” the president continued. “People are looking for just something to grab, something that gives them some sense of hope. If I can do a little bit of that, then it’s worth doing. It was done for me.”

In a speech to Israelis before leaving Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Biden had stressed: “I come to Israel with a single message: You are not alone. You are not alone. As long as the United States stands — and we will stand forever — we will not let you ever be alone.”

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