President Joe Biden on Wednesday said US passport holders who have been trapped in the Gaza Strip during the nearly month-long Israeli war against Hamas will be able to exit into Egypt starting today.
Speaking in Minnesota at an event to highlight his administration’s investment in rural areas, the president said “American leadership” had brought about “a situation where safe passage for wounded Palestinians and foreign nationals to exit Gaza has started” and said the US nationals who are able to exit today would be “the first group” of “probably over 1,000” to leave.
“We’ll see more of this process going on in the coming days, working nonstop to get Americans out of Gaza as soon as safely as possible. This is a result of intense and urgent American diplomacy with our partners in the region,” said Mr Biden, who added that he’d “personally spent a lot of time speaking with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and President Sisi of Egypt and others, to make sure that we could open this access for people to get out”.
“I want to thank our partners in the region and particularly Qatar, who’ve worked so closely with us to support negotiations to feel safe to facilitate the departure of the citizens,” he said.
The president also said his administration would continue working to “significantly step up the flow of critical humanitarian assistance into Gaza,” but warned that despite the increasing number of aid convoys entering the territory, there was still “a long way to go”.
He added that the US would “continue to drive humanitarian support” to Gaza even while supporting Israel’s right to respond to Hamas terrorism “in a manner that is consistent in international humanitarian law that prioritises the protection of citizens”.
Hours earlier aboard Air Force One, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters that the opening of the Rafah crossing was “an important first step in a process that we expect to see continue over the coming days” and a “a significant breakthrough” that was a “direct result of weeks of effort and personal diplomacy” on the part of Mr Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Special Envoy David Satterfield.
“It was certainly a focus of the President’s calls with [Egyptian] President Sisi and [Israeli] Prime Minister Netanyahu on Sunday, where this arrangement was discussed in detail,” he added.
Mr Kirby also said the administration has been “working to get Americans including US citizens, lawful permanent residents and family members out as quickly and safely as possible”.
“That continues to be the case and again I think you’ll see more over coming days. A handful of Americans are expected to depart today and we expect to get more to come in future days,” said Mr Kirby, who added that the US State Department has “communicated directly with American citizens in Gaza over the past 24 hours to tell them to be ready to go and to await further instruction”.
A spokesman for State Department credited the government of Qatar with positive developments on the issue of Americans in Gaza and their ability to evacuate through the Egyptian border. Matthew Miller told reporters at a briefing on Wednesday that the US government was “appreciative” of the efforts of Qatar and other regional powers to expend influence with Hamas leadership to secure the release of both Americans trapped in Gaza and Israeli hostages of the militant group.
The news that American nationals will be able to exit the Hamas-controlled territory came just hours after Egypt’s government began allowing foreign passport holders to pass through the Rafah border crossing that separates the Gaza Strip from Egypt, which controlled the 141 sq mile territory from 1948 until 1967, when the Israeli Defence Forces seized it during the Six Day War.
Since Israel began striking targets in Gaza following the 7 October terrorist attacks by Hamas, Israeli officials and foreign governments have urged noncombatants and foreign nationals to move to the south end of the territory.
Many foreign nationals have gathered at the Rafah crossing for weeks in hopes of leaving, but Egypt not allowed anyone to exit into their territory until now.
So far, as many as 500 foreign passport holders have entered Egypt under an agreement between the Egyptian and Israeli governments following negotiations with Hamas coordinated between the US and Qatari governments.
As the crossing opened on Wednesday, Al Jazeera reported that “huge queues” had formed around passport control facilities.
The Rafah crossing is a critical passage – a sole point between Egypt and the Gaza Strip – through which only a “the handful of convoys” have been allowed to enter the besieged area with humanitarian aid, food and water.