Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt opens for limited evacuation

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The Rafah border border crossing between Gaza and Egypt has opened for the first time in more than three weeks of brutal conflict to allow the evacuation of dozens of Palestinian injured requiring hospital treatment and hundreds of foreign passport-holders.

Live pictures from television crews at the border on the Gaza’s side showed scores of people and cars moving through the gates towards the Egyptian side through the damaged terminal area, some carrying their belongings.

The opening of the crossing was negotiated between Egypt, Israel and Hamas, in coordination with the US, after the intervention of Qatar, which mediated in the talks.

However, there is no indication for how long the Rafah crossing would remain open. The opening of the border crossing follows mounting international pressure to open Rafah on humanitarian grounds.

The border authority in Gaza added that Egypt had agreed to let in 81 of the most badly wounded on Wednesday, seeking evacuation.

Hundreds of people have gathered at the crossing at different times in recent weeks, but have not been allowed out due to disagreements among Egypt, Israel and Hamas. No one had been allowed to leave Gaza, except for four hostages released by Hamas.

Although more than 200 trucks of desperately needed aid have crossed into Gaza from Egypt, no people had been allowed to flee the battered enclave.

Foreign governments say there are passport holders from 44 countries, as well as 28 agencies, including UN bodies, living in the Gaza Strip, where 2.4 million people have endured more than three weeks of unrelenting Israeli bombardment in response to the 7 October Hamas attacks.

The opening of the crossing came as Palestinians reported another widespread outage of internet and phone service in Gaza on Wednesday, hours after Israeli airstrikes levelled apartment buildings near Gaza City and as ground troops battled Hamas militants inside the besieged territory.

The Palestinian telecoms company Paltel reported a “complete disruption” of internet and mobile phone services in Gaza, marking the second time in five days that residents were largely cut off from the world. Communications also went down over the weekend, as Israeli troops pushed into Gaza in larger numbers.

The strikes on Gaza began after a 7 October attack in which Hamas militants entered southern Israel, killing 1,400 people, the majority civilians, according to Israeli officials.

On Tuesday, a photographer with the AFP news agency said a large number of ambulances had gathered at the Rafah crossing, while a medical official in the Egyptian city of El Arish told the news agency that medical teams would be present at the crossing to examine cases and determine which hospitals they will be sent to.

The medical official added that a field hospital with an area of 1,300 square metres would be built to receive the wounded Palestinians in the city of Sheikh Zuweid in northern Sinai, about 15km from Rafah.

The US had made “real progress” in the last few hours in negotiations to secure a safe passage for hundreds of Americans and other foreign nationals who wished to leave Gaza, the US state department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

“We would hope that any agreement to get any individuals out would also unlock the possibility of American citizens or their families and other foreign nationals coming out,” he said.

Miller said that the US would inform its citizens in Gaza to head to Rafah “as soon as we have actionable information”.

On Wednesday, the BBC reported that the UK Foreign Office had informed British nationals trapped in Gaza that Rafah might open for limited exits.

The US has been working with Qatar and Egypt to open the Rafah border crossing to allow American citizens to leave. So far, traffic at Rafah has reopened one way allowing a limited number of aid trucks to go into Gaza.

The Israeli national security council chief, Tzachi Hanegbi, told reporters Israel was speaking with Egypt about the injured, but made clear that there was still a dispute on aid deliveries, with Egypt seeking to let more trucks into Gaza but Israel saying it was limited to searching dozens of vehicles a day.

The US, which has backed Israel but pressed for greater humanitarian considerations, has voiced hopesthat 100 trucks a day could go through Rafah.

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, will visit Israel on Friday for meetings with members of the government and then make other stops in the region, the department said.

Reports that the crossing would open on Wednesday came hours after an Israeli strike on the largest refugee camp in Gaza, in which the health ministry said at least 50 people were killed.

At least six airstrikes hit residential areas in the Jabalia refugee camp on Gaza City’s outskirts on Tuesday. The Israeli military said it had targeted the camp to kill Ibrahim Biari – a key Hamas commander linked to the group’s 7 October attack on Israel, who, it said, had taken over civilian buildings in Gaza City with his fighters.

Egypt on Tuesday condemned the strike on Jabalia camp “in the strongest terms”, warning against “the consequences of the continuation of these indiscriminate attacks that target defenceless civilians” in a foreign ministry statement.

Early on Wednesday, Paltel said communications and internet services had been completely cut off in Gaza due to international access being disconnected.

Phone and internet were cut on Friday, plunging Gaza into a communications blackout, before being restored later.