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The diplomacy that went into opening the Rafah Border for Palestinians


We're going to take a look now at the dynamics that led to a small and very rare diplomatic success in the war between Israel and Hamas. That is right - a success. Today, a few hundred people were allowed to leave the Gaza Strip for neighboring Egypt for the first time since war broke out in the wake of an attack by Hamas militants nearly a month ago. President Biden tweeted, today, thanks to American leadership, we secured safe passage for wounded Palestinians and for foreign nationals to exit Gaza.

Well, it appears some Americans working for aid groups got out, but all of this has taken complex negotiations. And we're going to talk this through with NPR's Aya Batrawy, who's tracking things from Dubai. Hey there.


KELLY: OK, so obviously a key player here is Egypt. It was their border. Its leaders have been very hesitant to open that border with Gaza. What made it work today?

BATRAWY: Well, first, these are really small numbers. We're talking just, like, maybe over 300 foreigners. And they're going to be moving on to another country. They're not staying in Egypt. And this stance of allowing Palestinians who were wounded in Israeli wars in Gaza to come in to Egypt for treatment - that's not new. It's happened in the past.

And Egypt isn't saying that they won't open their border for wounded people and some of them to be treated in Egypt or for foreign nationals to leave. What they're saying is they're not going to open their border for all of Palestinians in Gaza to come and settle in the northern Sinai region. They're worried that could be turned into a place of resistance against Israel, dragging Egypt into the war. And they also say, like, you know, we are worried that this would become permanent. And there are also Palestinians who say they don't want to lose their homes or land, but they don't have anywhere to go. But yeah, we did see several dozen Palestinians leaving today and getting treatment in government hospitals in Egypt.

KELLY: Well, and stay with this - that this is kind of a trickle of the many people who would like to be exiting Gaza. It prompts me to wonder - what took so long, and what might it take to get all the others still trapped in Gaza out?

BATRAWY: Well, Egypt blames Israel for the holdup, saying it bombed that crossing multiple times and shelled it. Israel blames Hamas, saying that they blocked people from leaving. NPR's producer Anas Baba was there at the crossing on the Palestinian side today, met with Americans who unsuccessfully tried to get out, and they say that wasn't true. Hamas just wasn't at the border in past times when they tried to leave. And there are up to 600 Palestinian Americans in Gaza. But Egypt wanted this to be organized on the Palestinian side of the crossing today, and so there were Hamas officials from the Interior Ministry and the Border Patrol organizing that effort. And also Qatar had influence with Hamas, and they were able to help negotiate all of this.

KELLY: OK, so you've just introduced another key player - the country of Qatar. How are they involved here?

BATRAWY: Well, Qatar, for years, has paid tens of thousands of civil servants, like teachers and doctors, in the Hamas-run government despite Israel and the U.S. saying and designating Hamas as a terrorist organization. But supporters of this policy in Israel say that it was meant to sort of keep Hamas from escalating attacks against Israel, and detractors say it was a policy that was meant to divide Palestinian factions and weaken the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

But Qatar has long had this policy of talking with groups that the U.S. and Europe don't want to deal with directly, like the Taliban in Afghanistan. And my understanding is that these negotiations were an agreement between Egypt, Hamas and Israel, mediated by Qatar in coordination with the U.S. - so very complex, as you mentioned.

KELLY: Very complex - but I'll end with a simple question, which is, where does this leave all the people still stuck in Gaza?

BATRAWY: I mean, this is a tiny fraction of Gaza's residents. Let's take this one figure, for example. There are something like 2,000 people with cancer in Gaza who can no longer access the treatment they need because the one hospital that could shut down today. It ran out of fuel and was damaged in an Israeli airstrike yesterday. So there are just 19 hospitals in all of Gaza barely functioning. Sixteen have shut down. So this border opening for 46 wounded Palestinians and a few hundred foreign nationals and aid workers doesn't help the millions facing bombs and the more than 22,000 wounded in Gaza.

KELLY: NPR's Aya Batrawy. Thank you.

BATRAWY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.