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Flour for Gaza to be shipped through the Israeli port in Ashdod, the White House says

A displaced Palestinian woman prepares bread inside a tent at a makeshift camp in Rafah near the Gaza-Egypt border earlier this month.
AFP via Getty Images
A displaced Palestinian woman prepares bread inside a tent at a makeshift camp in Rafah near the Gaza-Egypt border earlier this month.

Updated January 20, 2024 at 11:58 AM ET

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel will allow shipments of flour to Gaza to arrive via a port in the Israeli city of Ashdod, a development that aid groups have called for to alleviate food shortages in the embattled territory.

The White House announced Israel's decision Friday after a phone call between President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "The president welcomed the decision from the Government of Israel to permit the shipment of flour for the Palestinian people directly through Ashdod port," the White House said afterward.

Israel has not publicly announced the deal. Netanyahu's office Saturday released a one-sentence statement about the call that only described Netanyahu's demand that Israel retain "security control" over Gaza after the war is over — a demand incompatible with Biden's push for a Palestinian state.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, confirmed news of the port deal to NPR, and added that millions of dollars worth of flour is expected to be shipped in over time.

The port of Ashdod, one of the two largest commercial ports in Israel, is located on the coast about 20 miles north of Gaza. The White House did not publicize other details about the shipments, such as when they would begin or where the flour would cross into Gaza after arriving in Ashdod.

The announcement came four days after the heads of the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization and UNICEF, the U.N. agency for children, had called on Israel to authorize the use of the port to ship in greater amounts of humanitarian assistance.

Opening the Ashdod port to humanitarian shipments "would enable significantly larger quantities of aid to be shipped in and then trucked directly to the badly affected northern regions of Gaza, which few convoys have managed to reach," the agency heads wrote in a statement.

In its readout of the Biden-Netanyahu call, the White House said its teams would continue to "separately work on options for more direct maritime delivery of assistance into Gaza."

Food assistance, including flour, arrives daily to southern Gaza via the border crossings at Rafah and Kerem Shalom. But aid groups say much more flour is needed, including in northern Gaza, which is mostly inaccessible from the south due to fighting and damaged roads.

For Palestinians, finding bread and flour is a daily struggle

For many Palestinians in Gaza, each day has become a struggle to find basic necessities, like clean water and food to eat. Flour, especially, is in demand to make bread.

"Nowadays, what keeps us alive is just bread, flour, tuna and water," said Mohammed Abu Hashem, 28, who is living in a tent in Rafah after fleeing the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza. "If any of these are cut off or missing, it's a big problem for any family."

A day's labor earns him about 20 shekels, or about $5, he said. "Today, 20 shekels can't buy a loaf of bread or anything."

A 25-kilogram bag of flour that might have cost $10 before the war now costs 200 shekels, or more than $50, he said. "Who has 200 shekels?" he asked. The firewood or fuel needed to heat a pan for bread is also expensive, Abu Hashem added.

Unable to make their own bread, Nu'man Kabaja, 30, a Palestinian displaced from the Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza, said he and his wife regularly stand in line for six or more hours to buy bread from a bakery to feed their five children.

"We stand for these six hours. We buy the bread. We burn our day to feed our children," Kabaja said. "My children are hungry, and my wife is hungry. We are all hungry."

Only 15 bakeries are operational across southern Gaza, and none are operating in the north, the World Food Programme reports. Palestinians have described extremely long lines at aid stations and high prices at informal markets.

The U.N. warns that Gaza's entire population of 2.2 million is at imminent risk of famine. Nearly 380,000 Palestinians in Gaza are currently at catastrophic levels of food insecurity, the U.N. says, meaning they are experiencing an extreme lack of food despite exhausting all coping mechanisms.

Additional reporting by NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv and Anas Baba in Rafah.

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.