US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was forced to abandon a visit to Gaza’s border to oversee aid deliveries because Israeli protesters were blocking shipments of food into the territory, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Mr Blinken has faced fierce criticism from humanitarian groups and European allies in recent days after the US froze funding for UNRWA, the largest aid agency on the ground in Gaza, at a time when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are facing an escalating hunger crisis and risk of famine.
It comes amid reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered his military to prepare for an invasion of Rafah, the last refuge in Gaza, where hundreds of thousands fled to at the orders of the invading army.
The secretary of state’s trip to the Kerem Shalom crossing was reportedly planned so that he could evaluate the passage of much-needed aid into Gaza. But it was abandoned due to the presence of protesters linked to extremist settler groups who have been disrupting aid shipments into the beleaguered territory for several weeks.
The protesters have demanded that no food enter Gaza until hostages kidnapped by Hamas during the 7 October attacks are released. Deliveries have also been blocked by the Israeli army, which inspects all aid trucks going into Gaza.
A “preparatory tour” of the crossing by Israeli police, army, foreign ministry representatives and members of Mr Blinken’s security detail had taken place ahead of the planned visit, according to Haaretz, which cited several people familiar with the planning. On the day of the tour, however, protesters managed to block nine trucks from entering.
When Israeli police couldn’t guarantee that they would be able to stop the protesters doing the same during Mr Blinken’s visit, the trip was abandoned to avoid embarrassing the secretary of state, according to the report.
At a press conference on Wednesday at the US embassy in Jerusalem, Mr Blinken denied that there was a visit planned, telling reporters that “there was no planned visit to Kerem Shalom so there was nothing to cancel”.
The alleged cancellation of the trip further highlights a contradiction in US policy towards the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Mr Blinken has spoken often about the delivery of aid to Palestinians as a top priority, but his administration has been accused by aid groups of worsening the crisis.
Hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza are starving as a result of Israel’s war against Hamas, according to aid agencies on the ground. But an even greater number of Palestinian lives may soon be at risk due to a decision by the US and its allies to freeze funding to UNRWA – the United Nations agency responsible for Palestinian refugees – following reports that a small number of employees were involved in those attacks.
UNRWA has warned it may run out of money as early as this month, a worst-case scenario that aid groups have warned could cause widespread famine and death.
Michael Fakhri, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, said of the decision: “Famine was imminent. Famine is now inevitable.”
The move also drew condemnation from US allies. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, called the freezing of UNRWA funds “disproportionate and dangerous”.
“The wrongdoing of individuals should never lead to the collective punishment of an entire population,” he wrote in a blog post.
The UNRWA was already struggling to operate effectively in Gaza before the freeze. It received just half of the funds it needed to meet the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe caused by the war. Israeli restrictions on aid deliveries and widespread bombing across the strip have made delivering aid almost impossible, and at least 152 of its staffers have been killed in the bombardment, according to the agency.
Other aid agencies have warned that they do not possess the capability to fill the gap left by UNRWA should it halt operations. Today, UNRWA says more than 500,000 people in Gaza are facing “catastrophic hunger,” and the risk of famine increases every day.
That risk has been increased by the decision by Israel to block a significant number of aid trucks from entering Gaza. The UN said that 80 per cent of aid deliveries destined for northern Gaza were blocked by the Israeli army in January.
More than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel’s offensive in the densely populated territory, most of them women and children, according to the health ministry in Gaza. The war was launched in response to a surprise attack by Hamas militants on 7 October that killed 1,200 people in Israel. Some 250 people were also kidnapped and taken back to Gaza.
The Independent has requested comment from the US State Department and the Israeli army.