How the White House persuaded Israel to open the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza

December 24, 2023

WASHINGTON — When the temporary truce between Israel and Hamas collapsed this month, the immediate concerns of Biden administration officials were twofold: the fate of the remaining hostages in Gaza and the effect the resumption of fighting would have on getting humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people. 

At that point, much-needed aid was cleared to enter the besieged enclave only through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. 

In the days afterward, President Joe Biden and his top diplomats pointedly stepped up pressure on the Israeli government to open an additional border crossing at Kerem Shalom to increase the flow of aid, according to senior administration officials who first shared the details of how that happened with NBC News. 

The effort to open the crossing, which is in Israel near the intersection of Egypt and Gaza, took weeks of intensive negotiations and in-person appeals, the officials said. 

As of Thursday, more than 323 trucks had crossed into Gaza from Israel this week, but senior U.S. officials concede much more aid is needed to address the growing humanitarian crisis, and that number needs to grow significantly to have a major impact. 

“We would certainly never assert that enough assistance is getting in,” Curtis Ried, the chief of staff for the White House National Security Council, said in an interview. 

Humanitarian groups say what’s going in now is not nearly adequate. 

“We welcome the opening of a second crossing for desperately-needed aid to enter Gaza,” International Committee of the Red Cross spokesman Jason Straziuso told NBC News. “However, we reiterate that the amount of aid entering cannot make a real difference if it cannot be safely and effectively distributed. The ongoing armed hostilities create challenges in doing this.”

Hunger crisis 

Ninety-three percent of the population in Gaza is reaching “crisis levels of hunger,” with 1 in 4 households facing “catastrophic conditions,” including extreme lack of food and starvation, according to estimates from the World Health Organization. 

Before Oct. 7, 400 to 500 aid trucks were crossing into Gaza through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt with humanitarian assistance to sustain the population day to day, according to the United Nations. After the Hamas attacks, the flow of vehicles stopped completely. 

In the initial days of the war, only dozens of trucks were able to enter through the Rafah crossing, after intense international coordination. 

Israel had a firm policy that no direct entry of goods in any form would be allowed into Gaza from Israel, a view held across the political spectrum in Israel because Hamas’ attacks appear to have been planned and enabled by some Gazans working in Israel, a senior administration official said. 

“It was nearly impossible,” the official said about getting Israel to relent on its position. 

By November, a maximum of 200 trucks a day were entering the strip through Rafah, regardless of how much work was being done from the Egyptian and Israeli sides to increase assistance, the official said. That was nowhere near enough in the view of the U.S., which pressed Israel to allow more aid to enter, particularly during the weeklong truce and hostage release. 

“It became clear that without the opening of Israel’s crossing at Kerem Shalom, aid entering Gaza would be constrained by the capacity limitations of the Rafah crossing,” the official said. 

That’s when the National Security Council ramped up its involvement and pressure to persuade Israel to change course and open the Kerem Shalom crossing. 

Biden, Blinken and Sullivan

The ask had been made early on, including during Biden’s visit to Tel Aviv in the weeks after the terrorist attacks. Biden heard from Israeli leaders who told him that no aid should enter Gaza through Israel until Hamas released all of its hostages, and he tasked U.S. officials with negotiating for Kerem Shalom to be opened, a senior administration official said. 

Biden raised the issue in a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Nov. 21, the official said, during which Biden also asked for fuel to be increased from the 160,000 liters going during the pause to 180,000 liters. Biden specifically asked for Kerem Shalom to be opened for inspections first, to take a burden off the Rafah crossing. Netanyahu was noncommittal, a U.S. official said. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken relayed the same request to Netanyahu and his war Cabinet when he traveled to the region a few days later during the pause, the official said. 

During that period, national security adviser Jake Sullivan was also holding daily calls with Israeli officials, making it clear that those points were “nonnegotiable,” according to an official familiar with the discussions. 

On Dec. 7, Israel’s war Cabinet voted to increase fuel levels, and last week, the government announced Kerem Shalom would be open for inspections. Although trucks were not allowed to cross from Kerem Shalom at the time, the added inspection point meant more trucks could cross per day into Rafah, an official said, but it was still not enough. 

Biden had communicated to Netanyahu that he was sending Sullivan to the region to follow up on Kerem Shalom, and Sullivan conveyed to officials there that the U.S. expected it to be open before he arrived, officials said, which did not happen. 

During that time, the Israelis suffered their worst day of casualties in the war so far, with 10 Israel Defense Forces soldiers killed, including senior officers. That meant the decision on Kerem Shalom seemed to be put on the back burner and might not occur in the time frame the U.S. was hoping for, an official said. 

Sullivan continued to press for the border crossing to be fully operational last week, and Israel agreed to vote on the issue. Sullivan, an official said, told Netanyahu directly that he would not leave Israel until the matter was resolved. 

Then, just one hour before Sullivan was set to depart the country on last Friday, the Cabinet voted in favor of opening Kerem Shalom for aid to flow in, an official said. Trucks started to go through over the weekend, which was the first direct entry of humanitarian aid from Israel into Gaza since the Oct. 7 attacks. 

Devolving situation 

On Sunday, the first day Kerem Shalom was open for trucks to enter, 79 crossed, followed by 64 the next day, 60 the day after that and 120 on Wednesday, the most daily crossings so far, the official said. 

“That’s why the opening of the second crossing has been so important,” another senior administration official said.  

But the issue of getting much-needed aid into Gaza is further complicated, the official said, by the actual distribution of food, fuel and supplies once they arrive. 

“There is a limited capacity inside Gaza” to do that, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency has had problems with that aspect, as well, the official added. 

The fighting between Hamas and the IDF has also affected the ability of trucks to enter Gaza at the Rafah and Kerem Shalom border crossings.

“We’ve been very clear on the need for humanitarian corridors and deconfliction,” said Ried, the National Security Council chief of staff.

Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for the U.N. secretary-general, called the opening of the Kerem Shalom crossing a “positive development” but stressed that aid is still scarce. 

“While the current scale of supplies entering Gaza falls short of what is required, what is equally crucial is to re-establish the conditions within Gaza that allow for meaningful, efficient and large-scale humanitarian deliveries,” Dujarric said Thursday at his daily news briefing. 

“Currently intense fighting, the lack of electricity, limited fuel and disruptive telecommunications severely restrict access to loading points into trucks, as well as the ability to deliver, prioritize, plan and coordinate critical operations — with civilians bearing the brunt of the suffering that is going on,” he added. 

That logistical challenge is one of the reasons the U.S. is pushing for a senior coordinator, appointed by the U.N. secretary-general, who would lead the international effort to increase aid into Gaza by maximizing use of the Kerem Shalom crossing, a senior administration official. 

Ried said, “We always want more and faster, and we’ll keep pushing for that.”

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