Israel agrees to finally release American flour shipment for Gaza, says US official

Aid delivery expected to be distributed by World Food Program instead of UNRWA, after Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich blocked its transfer for more than a month

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

Volunteers distribute rations of red lentil soup to displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 18, 2024. (Said Khatib / AFP)
Volunteers distribute rations of red lentil soup to displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 18, 2024. (Said Khatib / AFP)

Israel has agreed to a new arrangement that will allow for a massive American shipment of flour for Gazan civilians to move forward after far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich blocked its transfer for over a month, a US official told The Times of Israel.

Under the new arrangement, the flour, capable of feeding 1.5 million Gazans for five months, will be ferried into Gaza by the World Food Program rather than the UNRWA relief agency for Palestinian refugees, the official said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu privately informed the Biden administration that Israel approved the shipment in early January. The White House announced the development on January 19, as it came under increasing pressure to do more to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

But more than one month later, the flour has yet to enter Gaza.

The shipment arrived at Israel’s Ashdod Port, but Smotrich blocked its transfer to UNRWA, which came under fire last month over allegations that 12 of its staffers participated in the October 7 terror onslaught.

The delay has angered the Biden administration, which has repeatedly noted in recent weeks that Israel is violating the commitments it made to the president.

File: Palestinian crowds struggle to buy bread from a bakery in Rafah, Gaza Strip, February 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

With the new arrangement finalized, the shipment can move forward immediately, the US official said.

However, even if the flour does make it to Gaza, it is unclear whether it will be distributed to civilians.

Recent days have seen the distribution of humanitarian aid largely ground to a halt due to the refusal of Hamas police to secure the trucks delivering the assistance through Gaza because they have repeatedly come under Israeli fire.

UN data and officials say the flow of aid entering Gaza from Egypt has almost dried up in the past two weeks, and a collapse in security has made it increasingly difficult to distribute the food that does get through. Israel meanwhile blamed the United Nations for the fall-off in deliveries and said it is prepared to speed up the clearance of aid.

Inside Gaza, desperate residents have halted convoys to seize aid from trucks as footage has shown gunmen, believed to be members of Hamas, stealing trucks delivering aid from Egypt.

A riot unfolds over humanitarian aid at the Rafah Crossing on February 16, 2024. (Screen capture/Channel 12)

After more than four months of a war that has demolished vast swaths of Gaza, displaced most of the territory’s population, and pushed people to the brink of starvation, Netanyahu has insisted the IDF must press ahead into Rafah for “complete victory” against Hamas.

According to the UN, half of Gazans are at risk of starvation.

The war erupted when Hamas-led terrorists rampaged through southern communities on October 7, slaughtering some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking some 253 hostages to the Strip, while committing brutal atrocities.

More than 29,000 people, mostly women and children, have been killed in the ensuing Israeli offensive, according to figures by Hamas health authorities in the Strip. The figures cannot be independently verified, and Israel says they include at least 12,000 terror operatives, as well as those killed by failed rocket launches by terror groups.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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