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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Amid Gaza aid delay, protests surge across region

By Heba Farouk Mahfouz, Rick Noack and Susannah George Washington Post

NUR SHAMS CAMP, West Bank – Waves of protests erupted across the Middle East and beyond on Friday as demonstrators blamed Israel and its allies for the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza, as well as deadly clashes in the West Bank.

Protesters held marches outside Israeli and U.S. diplomatic missions, where some burned Israeli flags and stepped on portraits of President Biden, who had delivered an impassioned Oval Office speech Thursday urging Americans to stand by Israel.

Biden has also pushed for humanitarian relief for Gaza after Israel cut off access to the territory last week. But as demonstrators gathered at Egypt’s Rafah crossing Friday – the only link into Gaza that Israel does not control – the first 20 aid trucks meant for the territory remained stranded.

Hopes faded that the Israeli and Egyptian sides would work out differences to allow the shipment into Gaza by the end of the day as planned. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, who visited the crossing on the Egyptian side, said the logjam left him “broken hearted.”

There were also mounting concerns over the impact of the Israel-Gaza war on the West Bank. At the Nur Shams refugee camp, funeral processions wound through the narrow streets Friday after a day-long Israeli raid in the area killed at least 13 people there. Neighbors were still washing away puddles of blood.

“The ambulance couldn’t enter” because Israeli forces sealed off all the streets, said Mamoon Abu al-Hayja, whose son was among the victims. “I picked up his body in my own arms.”

The blocked aid and continued Israeli attacks fired up the protesters. “Palestinians, your blood is my blood,” crowds chanted in Cairo during a rare protest approved by the military-backed government.

Haidy Mohsen, 38, a freelance artist in Cairo, said she joined the protests because “I am a mother. I have children. I feel their pain while they watch as their children get killed.”

Fuel for the main hospital in Gaza City could run out within 24 hours, according to medical officials, and the U.N. human rights office said that Israeli strikes were ongoing across Gaza, including in the south, where Israel had urged civilians to move for shelter. Some people with foreign passports also hoped to leave Gaza through Rafah.

But even amid the efforts to push through the first trickle of aid, there were some signs that Israel was moving forward with plans for a ground assault. Israeli army spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said the Israeli air force was striking Gaza “at a rate not seen for decades,” ahead of the “next stage” of its operations against Hamas.

“We will finish off Hamas,” said Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, adding that Israel is in the first stage of a lengthy effort to establish “a new, secure regime in Gaza” – but without taking over the territory in the long run. Israel has imposed tight controls on Gaza since the militant group Hamas gained control in 2007.

At least 1,400 people in Israel have been killed and more than 4,500 injured since the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, according to Israeli authorities. More than 200 people were taken hostage by Hamas after its rampage through villages and kibbutz settlements. Palestinian officials said Israeli strikes have killed 4,137 people in Gaza and wounded more than 13,200.

A ground invasion of Gaza would likely escalate tensions in the West Bank, which is led by a Hamas rival, the Palestinian Authority. But West Bank leaders have faced growing pressures from groups clashing with Israeli security forces.

At the Nur Shams refugee camp where at least 13 people were killed in an Israeli raid Thursday, residents said similar incidents, arrests and clashes with Israeli soldiers and settlers have been on the rise since Oct. 7. Bulldozers still cleared rubble and piles of burned garbage from the scene Friday morning.

Israel’s military said an “aircraft struck an armed terrorist squad that posed a threat to the soldiers in the area, killing a number of terrorists,” in a statement Thursday. Residents said Israeli troops tried to push into the camp from the nearby main road, but were quickly bogged down by fighters firing on the convoy from nearby buildings.

“They want revenge for what happened in Gaza,” said Ahmed Zazah, a university professor from Jenin and family friend of one of the people killed Thursday. “They want to punish the civilians,” he said of the Israeli troops.

The United Nations human rights office said Friday that it was “extremely alarmed by the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation” and “the increase in unlawful use of lethal force” in the West Bank. The United Nations added that it has received reports of Israeli security forces killing 69 Palestinians, including at least 15 children and one woman, in the West Bank since Oct. 7.

With concerns over the situation in the West Bank mounting, the focus of many protesters on Friday remained on Gaza, days after a deadly strike at the al-Ahli Hospital. Palestinian authorities blamed the strike on Israel and said it killed 471 people. The Israel Defense Forces disputed that death toll and said the strike originated inside Gaza. U.S. officials have also said Israel was not responsible, citing intelligence, aerial imagery and open-source material.

As protesters gathered Friday, they paid little attention to Israel’s denial of responsibility, pointing to Israeli attacks that have damaged or destroyed places of worship, hospitals, schools and homes in Gaza since the fighting began, according to satellite imagery.

In another deadly blast, the historic Church of St. Porphyrius, Gaza’s oldest active church, was struck Thursday as it sheltered hundreds of Muslims and Christians displaced by the war, according to officials. At least 18 people were killed, said Maher Ayyad, 72, a member of the religious community based at the church.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem blamed Israel for the strike. The Israel Defense Forces said in an emailed statement that a strike targeting a Hamas control center “damaged the wall of a church in the area” and that it is “aware of reports on casualties” and is reviewing the incident.

In Egypt, protests in support of Palestinians were held in Cairo and the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria – encouraged by a government that has all but banned public demonstrations.

A government press release said one of the protests it was organizing would serve as a “crystal clear message” of Egypt’s “limitless” support for the Palestinian cause as well as for Cairo’s national security interests. Egypt worries that an Israeli military offensive could drive hundreds of thousands of Palestinians across the Egyptian border.

Despite the government’s approval, marchers framed Friday’s protests as an expression of popular will in a country where the Palestinian cause enjoys overwhelming public support, despite Egypt’s landmark 1979 peace deal with Israel.

At one large protest, near Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, banging was heard from inside a police truck full of conscripts – as the men normally sent to put down such protests signaled their support for the march. Outside the truck, the protesters chanted, “Gaza, Gaza, symbol of glory.”

Later Friday, Egyptian protesters surged past riot police toward Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the country’s 2011 anti-government revolt and a place where demonstrations in recent years have been forbidden, according to videos posted on social media.

While much of the protesters’ anger in the Middle East focused on Israel, plenty of people blamed the United States. In Iraq, supporters of the Shiite Coordinating Framework, a political bloc that holds the majority in the country’s parliament, chanted: “Death to America and Israel.”

They had gathered near the U.S. Embassy “to deliver a message to America,” viewed by many here as the “strike force against our people in Gaza,” said Abbas Abdulwahab Al-Hissaini, 45, who waved a Palestinian flag. “We can’t just watch our people being slaughtered in silence,” he said, adding that Iraqi “resistance forces” – a reference to the Iran-backed militias – had started attacking U.S. bases in Iraq in recent days.

The attacks – carried out with drones, and causing only minor injuries, according to the United States – would “continue, with a higher rate,” Hissaini said.