Blinken tours Kerem Shalom aid crossing as tank fire rings out from Gaza

By Humeyra Pamuk

KEREM SHALOM, Israel (Reuters) -Tank fire echoed from the Gaza strip on Wednesday as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited an aid inspection point, where he heard from Israeli officials including Defense Minister Yoav Gallant about efforts to increase assistance to the Palestinian enclave just a few hundred meters away.

Blinken got his first up-close view of the strip six months into the war as he toured a compound at the Kerem Shalom crossing bordered by thick concrete walls where aid trucks bound for Gaza are held for inspection, a process that aid groups have complained has been a major bottleneck.

Sacks of canned chickpeas, rice, potatoes and toilet paper, some marked with the logo of the UN's World Food Programme or the World Central Kitchen (WCK) aid group sat on pallets waiting to enter Gaza. Soldiers carrying automatic weapons roamed around the area known as an "inspection cell".

Israel has sought to demonstrate it is not blocking aid to Gaza, especially since President Joe Biden issued a stark warning to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying Washington’s policy could shift if Israel fails to take steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers.

That move came after seven WCK aid workers were killed by an Israeli strike, increasing anger over the dire conditions for Palestinians in Gaza.

U.S. officials and aid groups say some progress has been made but warn it is insufficient, amid stark warnings of imminent famine among Gaza's 2.3 million people.

The war began when Palestinian Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and abducting 253 others, according to Israeli tallies.

In response, Israel has launched a relentless assault on Gaza, killing more than 34,000 Palestinians, local health authorities say, in a bombardment that has reduced the enclave to a wasteland.

The Kerem Shalom crossing was closed after Oct. 7, when Israel imposed a strict blockade on Gaza, but reopened to limited traffic in December. As well as the crossings at Kerem Shalom and nearby Rafah, on the border with Egypt, Israel has recently said it is opening crossings into northern Gaza to aid trucks.

Israeli officials can inspect 55 trucks every hour at Kerem Shalom and work from morning to sunset, said Shimon Freedman, international media spokesperson for COGAT, an Israeli Defense Ministry agency tasked with coordinating aid deliveries into Palestinian territories.

Freedman said the bottleneck on aid deliveries was inside Gaza, not on the Israeli side.

At least 26 trucks carrying humanitarian aid were waiting by the road just outside the Kerem Shalom inspection point waiting to enter. A Reuters witness also saw dozens of military vehicles and tanks on a field next to the road leading up to Kerem Shalom.

Blinken earlier on Wednesday discussed with Netanyahu "the improvement in the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza since the call between President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu on April 4 and reiterated the importance of accelerating and sustaining that improvement," said State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller.

Ahead of his arrival in Israel, Blinken said Israel needed do more on aid, including by standing up a deconfliction mechanism with humanitarian agencies and making sure there are enough drivers and trucks within Gaza to deliver aid where it is needed.

He said a clear list of humanitarian items was also needed to make sure aid shipments were not arbitrarily denied entry into Gaza during Israel's inspections.

While the focus of Blinken's visit was on getting more aid to Palestinians in Gaza, Washington has also warned Israel not to go ahead with a planned assault on the southern city of Rafah.

Netanyahu said on Tuesday that Israel will carry out an operation against Hamas in Rafah regardless of whether a ceasefire and hostage release deal is reached.

United Nations aid chief Martin Griffiths said on Tuesday that an Israeli ground operation in Rafah was "on the immediate horizon." In a statement, he said Israeli improvements to aid access in Gaza "cannot be used to prepare for or justify a full-blown military assault on Rafah."

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by Simon Lewis; Editing by Daniel Wallis)