US to push for entry of commercial goods next -- officials

In first since war, cabinet approves reopening of Israeli crossing to Gaza for aid

PMO reveals Israel committed to allow entry of 200 trucks as part of last month’s hostage release deal; official: decision temporary, only extends to aid from Egypt, not UN

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Trucks with humanitarian aid wait to enter the Palestinian side of Rafah on the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip on December 11, 2023. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP)
Trucks with humanitarian aid wait to enter the Palestinian side of Rafah on the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip on December 11, 2023. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP)

The cabinet has voted to approve the temporary reopening of Israel’s Kerem Shalom Crossing for the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza for the first time since the outbreak of the war on October 7, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced Friday.

The statement came after escalating pressure from the Biden administration and hours after US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan wrapped up his final meetings in Israel.

Netanyahu’s office revealed for the first time that Israel had committed as part of the truce that secured the release of 105 hostages last month that it would facilitate the entry of 200 trucks per day of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Egypt’s Rafah crossing, which until now has been the only one open for the entry of aid, has only been able to keep up with 100 trucks per day, even after Israel began using Kerem Shalom for inspections earlier this week in addition to its Nitzana Crossing, said Netanyahu’s office.

The current framework has led to significant bottlenecks in the entry of aid.

“To comply with the agreement, today the cabinet temporarily approved the unloading of trucks on the Gaza side of the Kerem Shalom Crossing,” the Israeli statement, employing the vaguest language possible, to announce that it had reopened Kerem Shalom for the entry of aid.

The cabinet decision only extends to aid from Egypt and not the United Nations, an Israeli official said.

Trucks carrying humanitarian aid enter the Gaza Strip via the Rafah crossing with Egypt on December 2, 2023. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Netanyahu’s office also revealed that “the US has pledged to finance the upgrading of the Rafah crossing as quickly as possible.” The Egyptian access point will eventually be beefed up enough to be the sole crossing where aid is allowed into the Strip, so that Israeli crossings will not be needed for this purpose as well.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who was wrapping up a visit to Israel on Friday, called the decision a “significant step.”

“President (Joe) Biden raised this issue in recent phone calls with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and it was an important topic of discussion during my visit to Israel over the past two days,” he said.

The United States hoped “this new opening will ease congestion and help facilitate the delivery of life-saving assistance,” Sullivan added.

The World Health Organization welcomed the announcement but also called for  the aid to be distributed throughout the Strip, including the north which has been largely cut off by the fighting.

The cabinet decision is the latest flip-flop from Netanyahu’s government regarding humanitarian aid since Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught.

Netanyahu initially pledged not to allow any aid into Gaza, essentially imposing a siege on the Hamas-run enclave.

Two weeks later, though, Israel began allowing aid trucks into the Strip through Egypt’s Rafah Crossing. It kept its own Kerem Shalom goods crossing closed, arguing it that it would not directly facilitate the entry of aid into Gaza as long as hostages remained inside.

Jerusalem said it was part of a broader policy to try to disconnect from the enclave.

Trucks with humanitarian aid wait to enter the Palestinian side of Rafah on the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip on December 11, 2023. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP)

Just over a month into the war, Israel approved the entry of fuel tankers into Gaza for the first time after Netanyahu initially declared that “not one drop” would be allowed in since it would be diverted by Hamas.

But the amount of aid still lagged well behind the 500 trucks a day that entered Gaza before the war, which the UN says is still not currently sufficient given Gaza’s unprecedented humanitarian crisis.

Until a seven-day truce was implemented at the end of November, just about 50 trucks were entering Gaza on average each day. The temporary ceasefire saw a major spike of 200 trucks per day.

That number had plummeted back down to roughly 100 a day since.

Following the Kerem Shalom decision, two US and Israeli officials told The Times of Israel that the Biden administration has set its sights on its next ask from Israel: to allow commercial goods into the Strip.

Since Hamas’s October 7 onslaught, only basic humanitarian goods have — food, water, medicine and fuel — have been entering Gaza.

The officials told The Times of Israel that the US aims to get Gaza’s albeit limited economy up and running again after it effectively stopped operating on October 7.

Palestinians sell water they have looted from the humanitarian aid trucks during the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip at the border with Egypt in Rafah on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

Both the US and Israeli officials said that Jerusalem is currently resistant to the idea, but the US official expressed optimism that Netanyahu’s government will come around, as it did on reopening Kerem Shalom, allowing in fuel and allowing in humanitarian trucks from Egypt after initially rejecting all three requests.

“The Israelis understand that the more aid that gets in, the more time they’ll have to continue operations in Gaza,” the US official said.

War erupted in Gaza after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing over 240 hostages of all ages — mostly civilians — under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.

In response, Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas, and launched a wide-scale offensive aimed at rooting out the terror organization’s military and governance capabilities. The offensive has drawn international reproach for its mounting death toll, with the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza reporting over 18,000 Palestinians dead. However, these figures cannot be verified and are believed to include both combatants and noncombatants.

The Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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