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State Department issues global travel warning for Americans, as Gaza awaits aid

Volunteers and NGO staff camp in front of the Rafah border as they wait to deliver aid supplies to Gaza on Thursday in North Sinai, Egypt.
Mahmoud Khaled
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Getty Images
Volunteers and NGO staff camp in front of the Rafah border as they wait to deliver aid supplies to Gaza on Thursday in North Sinai, Egypt.

Updated October 19, 2023 at 2:50 PM ET

JERUSALEM — The first shipments of humanitarian aid could begin to arrive in the Gaza Strip as soon as Friday, nearly two weeks after the start of a punishing Israeli bombardment campaign targeted at the militant group Hamas and after the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Americans as tensions continue to build.

The humanitarian situation in Gaza has grown dire, aid groups say. Friday's delivery, if it takes place, would be the first since Israel halted the flow of food, water, electricity and fuel to the territory earlier this month, in retaliation for a wave of attacks by Hamas on Israeli towns near Gaza on Oct. 7.

The deal was announced by President Biden late Wednesday after a visit to Israel, during which he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and later spoke by phone with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Israel says it will not lift its siege until Hamas has released some 200 hostages the group is believed to be holding.

That has left only Egypt's Rafah border crossing, where trucks carrying some 3,000 tons of food, water and medicine are "awaiting" Egypt's approval to enter, the United Nations says.

Officials hope that up to 20 trucks of aid could enter Gaza Friday after roads damaged by airstrikes have been repaired, Biden told reporters. Dozens more trucks will continue to stand by until another agreement has been reached.

It is unclear if any fuel would be included in the shipment. With Gaza's main power plant unable to operate, aid groups say fuel is badly needed to power desalination and wastewater plants, along with hospital generators.

Of concern has been the ability of the United Nations to distribute aid to civilians without the interference of Hamas — a challenge that has long vexed those seeking to aid Gaza residents. If Hamas "doesn't let it get through or just confiscates it, then it's going to end," Biden said of the aid.

Calls for a cease-fire grow as airstrikes continue

On the Gaza side of the Rafah border, thousands of people have gathered in hopes of being allowed to exit the territory and escape the conflict. Israel has repeated its call for Palestinians to evacuate from northern Gaza to so-called safe zones in the southern part of the territory, ahead of a widely expected ground invasion. But Israeli bombardment has continued in southern Gaza, too.

As many as 600 U.S. citizens are thought to be trapped in Gaza, U.S. officials say, but it was unclear whether any people would be allowed out if the border opens on Friday.

Men carry out the body of a victim from a building in Rafah in the southern of Gaza Strip as the Israeli bombardment continued Thursday.
Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Men carry out the body of a victim from a building in Rafah in the southern of Gaza Strip as the Israeli bombardment continued Thursday.

For 13 days, Israeli airstrikes have pummeled the Gaza Strip, leveling buildings and damaging infrastructure. More than 1 million Palestinians — roughly half of the territory's population — are estimated to have left their homes to seek shelter in central or southern Gaza, according to the United Nations. Palestinian officials say that Israeli airstrikes have destroyed more than 4,800 residential buildings in Gaza and damaged more than 120,000 housing units.

Calls for a cease-fire have mounted since an explosion at Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City, the cause of which remains in dispute. Reports of the death toll have varied; Gaza's Ministry of Health says the blast killed more than 470 people, most of whom were patients at the hospital or people who had come to the hospital's courtyard to seek a safe place to stay.

The explosion sparked protests across the region, including in the occupied West Bank, where three Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces overnight.

Given the increased tensions globally, the State Department issued a travel advisory for Americans abroad.

"Due to increased tensions in various locations around the world, the potential for terrorist attacks, demonstrations or violent actions against U.S. citizens and interests, the Department of State advises U.S. citizens overseas to exercise increased caution," the agency said.

It strongly advised travelers to stay alert in touristy areas.

Israel's bombardment of Gaza continued Thursday in retaliation for a wave of Hamas attacks launched earlier this month that officials say left 1,400 people dead.
Jack Guez / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Israel's bombardment of Gaza continued Thursday in retaliation for a wave of Hamas attacks launched earlier this month that officials say left 1,400 people dead.

Diplomatic efforts to address the conflict

On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres arrived in Cairo to meet with officials there and to observe U.N. relief efforts as they prepare to enter Gaza "at a moment of profound crisis ... unlike any the region has seen in decades," he said.

As he had earlier this week, Guterres again called for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire to help reach these goals.

"For nearly two weeks the people of Gaza have gone without any shipments of fuel, food, water, medicine, and other essentials. Disease is spreading. Supplies are dwindling. People are dying," Guterres said at a press conference on Thursday alongside Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.

Guterres called on Hamas "for the immediate and unconditional release of the hostages" and on Israel "for immediate unrestricted access of humanitarian aid" for Gaza.

As part of a wave of diplomatic efforts to address the crisis, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak arrived in Israel Thursday to meet Israeli officials and families of those impacted by the Hamas attack.

Like Biden, Sunak supported Israel's "right to defend itself in line with international law, to go after Hamas, to take back hostages, deter further incursions and to strengthen your security for the long term."

Among the some 200 hostages believed to have been taken by Hamas are British nationals, according to Sunak. He met with individualswhose family members were taken hostage.

During his speech after meeting with Israeli officials, Sunak thanked Netanyahu "for the support that your government has given to the families of British nationals caught up in this horror, including your efforts to secure the release of hostages, and I know that we will continue to cooperate, particularly with regard to the British nationals that are involved."

French leader Emmanuel Macron is expected to follow in the coming days.

At the U.N. Security Council Wednesday, the U.S. vetoed a resolution on the Israel-Hamas war that called for humanitarian pauses to allow delivery of aid to Gaza. Twelve of 15 council members voted in favor of the measure; Russia and the United Kingdom abstained.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the Security Council the U.S. was disappointed the draft resolution made no mention of Israel's inherent right to defend itself against attacks. She also noted that the U.S. had been working with the U.N. and others to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which she said was brought about by Hamas' own actions.

About 1,400 people in Israel have been killed in the conflict, most of them on Oct. 7, Israeli officials say. Palestinian health officials say that the death toll in Gaza has reached 3,478, along with more than 60 dead in the West Bank.

Biden is expected to give an Oval Office address on the conflict Thursday at 8 p.m. ET.

NPR staffers Becky Sullivan reported from Jerusalem and Jaclyn Diaz reported from Washington, D.C. Linda Fasulo contributed reporting from New York.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
Jaclyn Diaz