Inside storyRefusal to reopen Kerem Shalom 'completely political'

US officials say Israel likely can’t make good on hostage deal promise to up Gaza aid

Infrastructure at Rafah, along with complicated inspection mechanism, make allowing in 200 trucks per day all but impossible, leading US to push for reopening Kerem Shalom

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

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)
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)

While Israel agreed in its hostage deal with Hamas to allow at least 200 trucks of humanitarian aid into Gaza for every day of the multi-day truce, the current aid delivery mechanisms the IDF has in place are unlikely to enable this much-needed increase in assistance, two Biden administration officials have told The Times of Israel.

Accordingly, Washington has been pressuring Israel to reopen its Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza to help facilitate the entry of more aid into the enclave both during the four-day-plus truce and beyond, the administration officials said Wednesday.

Israel has refused to reopen Kerem Shalom since Hamas’s October 7 onslaught and only allowed aid to enter Gaza through Egypt’s Rafah crossing two weeks into the war, arguing that it would not directly supply the Strip with assistance as long as the hostages remained there. Officials have also indicated Jerusalem will seek to disconnect from the Strip in the longer term, and no longer supply it with resources and merchandise as it has done for many years, leaving the task to Egypt and international actors.

As they try to provide aid to the war-torn Strip, aid organizations have sought to make do with just the Rafah crossing with Egypt, but only on several days since that crossing opened has the number of trucks eclipsed the initially set goal of 100.

Roughly 1,500 trucks of aid have entered since Rafah reopened on October 21, averaging less than 45 trucks a day.

Before the war, which has displaced 1.5 million people, some 500 trucks of aid entered Gaza each day, primarily through Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing.

A truck passes into Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing, the main passage point for goods entering the Strip from Israel, on May 18, 2021. (Said Khatib/AFP)

The two Biden administration officials cited several reasons for the underwhelming amount of aid that has been able to enter Gaza through Rafah, pointing first to a complicated inspection system, which has trucks first inspected in Egypt, then enter Israel’s Nitzana crossing where they are examined by Israeli authorities, before being returned to Egypt and ferried through Rafah.

This extra round of inspections was not in place before the war, but Israel has insisted on the additional step over the past month, citing fears that Hamas will try to smuggle in weapons and other supplies for military use.

The US officials also pointed to problems with Egypt’s El-Arish Airport, which is the only one receiving shipments of aid that are then driven into Gaza through Rafah. The airport has only one runway and very limited parking, making it unsuitable for the mass deliveries that are needed for the coastal enclave.

The Biden administration has been quietly pushing Israel to reconsider its policy of keeping Kerem Shalom closed, proposing that the crossing could at the very least be used for inspections or for trucks to exit Gaza after delivering aid, thus easing the load on Rafah, one senior administration official said.

US humanitarian envoy David Satterfield acknowledged in a Tuesday interview that “the Israeli government has made very clear that it is not prepared to see that change.”

But Washington intends to continue raising the issue, the two administration officials said.

Israel’s stance has been “really problematic because the level of aid going into Gaza now is totally unsustainable” as the humanitarian situation worsens and more people are reliant on assistance, the senior administration official warned, while acknowledging that Israeli officials have insisted that they’ll be able to meet the truce’s 200-truck minimum requirement.

Trucks carrying humanitarian aid enter the southern Gaza Strip from Egypt via the Rafah border crossing on November 19, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

The official argued that the refusal to reopen Kerem Shalom is “completely political,” given that there are no current security concerns about allowing aid into Gaza through that crossing.

A second administration official asserted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was most exposed to public criticism when the premier first agreed to allow aid in through Rafah last month after vowing that it wouldn’t do so. But with Rafah now already operating, opening Kerem Shalom as well comes with far less political risk, the official posited.

“The [Israelis], rightfully so, have made a point to highlight the aid they’ve been allowing in, recognizing that it gives them more international legitimacy to continue the military operation,” said the second administration official. “But it can’t just be a talking point.”

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