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Doctor urges U.S. to use its influence with Israel and Egypt to reopen Rafah crossing

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A Palestinian American doctor is joining calls for the Biden administration to use its influence with both Israel and Egypt to reopen the Rafah crossing into Gaza. It's been closed since Israel took over the border in early May. Some food, water and medicine has been getting in through other crossings, but aid is not the only issue, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Emergency doctor Thaer Ahmad was in Cairo about to go back to Gaza for a second rotation for the aid group MedGlobal when the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza was closed.

THAER AHMAD: The gloom was there. The atmosphere was just devastating. I mean, people were like, what happens now?

KELEMEN: Aid groups had to scramble to figure out basic logistics. Not just getting aid in and getting out Palestinians who were in critical need of medical attention - they also had to figure out how to rotate in and out international aid workers like Ahmad.

AHMAD: The politics at play between who the Egyptians want to be on the other side of the border, who the Israelis want there, how it's supposed to function, who's coming out of Palestine into Egypt - I think all of those things have superseded the conversation of the humanitarian conditions, and it's cast aside the suffering of the Palestinians on the inside.

KELEMEN: The Chicago-based ER doctor stopped by NPR on his latest trip to Washington, blaming both Israel and Egypt for the impasse.

AHMAD: But it's also a failure on the part of us, the United States, because those are two central allies, very close relationships, and we have not been able to manifest any significant change on the ground.

KELEMEN: State Department spokesman Matthew Miller says the U.S. is still trying to get the Rafah crossing reopened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTHEW MILLER: That is ultimately our goal - is to try to get Rafah back open. In the meantime, yes, we have worked to try to facilitate the rotation of humanitarian workers through Kerem Shalom.

KELEMEN: To get to Kerem Shalom, aid workers have to go from Jordan through Israel. MedGlobal will be trying that route soon, though Ahmad says the Israelis are insisting that all aid workers who get cleared stay for at least four weeks in Gaza, and there are other restrictions.

AHMAD: You're no longer allowed to bring in medical supplies on hand like we did many times before, like many physicians would. They'd bring in medical supplies in your personal bags. You're not allowed to bring any sort of devices other than one phone and one laptop. These are all new things that are being communicated to us.

KELEMEN: His aid group, MedGlobal, announced this week that a Palestinian worker for a malnutrition center in Gaza was killed in an Israeli attack. Ahmad says hundreds of medical workers have been killed, and he describes it as a generational loss.

AHMAD: It's frustrating how many times you have to say, it's extremely dire. It's catastrophic. The health system has collapsed. And it's because, you know, there's - every now and then, you get a chance to sort of bring in some stuff, but then you're back to square one.

KELEMEN: Ahmad thinks the U.N. and other experts are reluctant to declare a famine in Gaza because they know they can't mount the kind of response that's needed. So he just describes what's happening, with young children who can die from a common cold because they are malnourished.

AHMAD: If you can picture that scenario, then you're not going to care if I'm calling it a famine or acute malnutrition. You're going to know that that needs to change, and that's what I hope lawmakers here are starting to visualize.

KELEMEN: Earlier this year, he handed President Biden a letter from a young girl in Rafah urging the U.S. to stop the Israelis from entering the city, which was teeming with Palestinians displaced from other parts of Gaza. Now weeks into the Israeli operation there, Ahmad says he's lost touch with that girl and assumes she's been uprooted again. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF N-SO'S "ISNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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