A Biden administration official said on Friday that efforts to get Americans and other foreign nationals out of Gaza, a process that finally began on Wednesday, had been held up by Hamas trying to get its own wounded fighters included among those to be escorted into Egypt through the Rafah gate.
The explanation offered the first window into the kinds of details that were being negotiated with the leadership of Hamas, even as Israel began a campaign of airstrikes in response to the slaughter of 1,400 people and the taking of more than 200 hostages by Hamas terrorists in attacks on Israel on Oct. 7 launched from Gaza. Hamas rules Gaza politically and also has an armed wing whose fighters are embedded within the enclave’s civilian population.
People holding dual, U.S. or other foreign citizenship repeatedly gathered at the gate, at Gaza’s southern border, starting shortly after Oct. 7. But for weeks, the Rafah crossing remained closed. For most of that time, American officials said only that Hamas was preventing the departure of foreign nationals, and that the group was making unreasonable demands.
On Friday, a senior administration official provided more detail about those demands, speaking with reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive negotiations. The official said that Hamas repeatedly provided to Israel, the United States and Egypt lists of Palestinians who had been wounded and should be allowed to depart with the Americans and others. But vetting showed that many of them, the official said, were Hamas fighters.
The official said that about a third of the wounded Palestinians on the first list were Hamas fighters and that allowing them to exit Gaza was unacceptable to officials in Egypt, the United States and Israel. The delays continued for some time, the official said, because Hamas kept offering lists that turned out to include its members.
Biden administration officials have said that the negotiations with Hamas for the release of Americans and other foreign nationals was indirect, and undertaken with the help of representatives of the government of Qatar, which has long maintained lines of communications with Hamas.
The official who spoke to reporters on Friday said that Hamas eventually relented in its demands for the passage of its fighters. The prospect of Hamas fighters leaving Gaza was especially troubling for Egypt, which remains concerned about the possibility of terrorists flowing into its country.
Eventually, the official said, the parties settled on a list of wounded Palestinians who were not Hamas fighters. Those Palestinians who did leave were legitimately caught in the middle of the fighting, the official said.
The official said that negotiations with Hamas and Israel over the delivery of humanitarian aid into Gaza had also been difficult, but that it was now expected that about 100 trucks with aid would be entering Gaza each day.