'The past 3 days doesn't make up for the last 5 months'

‘It’s an established fact’: US envoy says most Gazans at risk of imminent famine

After recent aid influx, Satterfield points to lack of trucks in Gaza to distribute it, acknowledges Hamas has stolen some assistance but says most has reached Palestinian civilians

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Palestinian children fetch water in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 30, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)
Palestinian children fetch water in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 30, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

The Biden administration’s Gaza humanitarian envoy warned Wednesday that “there is an imminent risk of famine for the majority, if not all, the 2.2 million population of Gaza.”

“This is not a point in debate. It is an established fact, which the United States, its experts, the international community, its experts assess and believe is real,” David Satterfield said during a virtual event hosted by the American Jewish Committee.

Israel has pushed back on last month’s UN-backed food security classification that warned of looming famine in the northern Strip, arguing that there is more food and water in the territory than humanitarian workers have claimed. Jerusalem says the determination didn’t take into account recent improvements that it had implemented and argued that the problem lies with the UN and aid agencies who have failed to distribute the aid once Israel helps facilitate its entry into the Strip. Aid organizations have responded that IDF operations and movement restrictions are what have hampered distribution efforts.

As the US considers Israel the effective controlling power in Gaza, the American envoy said it has an obligation under international humanitarian law to ensure that civilians in the Strip are cared for.

“The horrific dehumanization of Israelis that took place on October 7 and the ongoing dehumanization of the Israeli hostages every day they’re held cannot be matched by the dehumanization of innocent Palestinian civilians,” Satterfield added.

He stated that the roughly 300,000 Palestinians left in northern Gaza are facing the highest risk of famine as a result of being cut off from most aid deliveries. This group of civilians didn’t or couldn’t heed Israeli calls to evacuate at the beginning of the war.

File: US envoy for the humanitarian situation in Gaza David Satterfield in October 2023. (Screen capture, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“But with the exception of northern Gaza, Rafah presents the most difficult challenging humanitarian picture right now of anywhere in Gaza,” Satterfield said, referring to the coastal enclave’s southernmost city.

He described Rafah, where roughly 1.4 million Palestinians are currently sheltering, as “a miserable place to be from any health-related, shelter-related standpoint.

“The ability to provide basic sanitation is non-existent. International workers have never seen sanitation situations as in Rafah,” Satterfield said.

“The ability to do more than survival-level feeding — simply averting starvation… is extraordinarily limited. Just because we are averting famine by the collective aid efforts moving in doesn’t mean we’re preventing other problems, malnutrition… and mortality among infants and young children,” he continued.

Israel is seeking to evacuate those civilians in order to launch a major operation in Rafah, the last major urban area in Gaza that the IDF has yet to enter since the start of the war sparked by the Hamas-led October 7 atrocities, and where it says the terror group’s four remaining battalions are based.

But Satterfield warned that “displac[ing] those already displaced persons in their current state of hunger [and] lack of basic medical services without all appropriate measures being taken to provide suitable shelter in advance, to provide the medical care, the water, the feeding that they need right now in Rafah and can’t get it — if you move them yet again, we believe the circumstances will be disastrous.”

“That is why the president has made clear that there must be a credible, implemented humanitarian plan for the population of Rafah before any Israeli operation can take place with US support,” he said while not ruling out Washington’s backing altogether.

Other US officials have been more absolute in their opposition, saying the Biden administration instead prefers more targeted operations against Hamas leaders while working with Egypt to secure Gaza’s southern border and prevent continued weapons smuggling to Hamas.

Displaced children pose standing at their tent on the first day of the Eid al-Fitr festival, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on April 10, 2024 (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Satterfield acknowledged significant improvement in Israel’s inspection abilities at the Gaza border over the past several days that have led to an average of roughly 400 trucks entering the Strip each day.

Israel also agreed to open another northern crossing into Gaza for aid, allow maritime aid deliveries through its Ashdod Port, expand the convoys it allows in through Jordan and develop more effective deconfliction mechanisms to ensure that humanitarian workers are protected. Only the last of those four steps has been fully implemented.

The biggest obstacle to delivering humanitarian assistance throughout Gaza following this major influx is the lack of trucks available in the Strip in order to deliver the assistance, Satterfield revealed.

Satterfield said the UN and international agencies had enough trucks in Gaza when aid was at much lower levels throughout the first six months of the war but that more trucks were now needed given the recent uptick.

He said the UN and international community were responsible — in coordination with Israel — for securing more trucks. A significant number of trucks have recently been purchased and were ready for entry into Gaza along with others that are in the final stages of being bought, Satterfield said, adding that the US was also urging countries to donate additional trucks in order to meet the demand.

Satterfield clarified the US felt increased aid deliveries over the past several days “don’t make up for five months of something very, very different.”

“The five months that preceded did not show an adequate ability by Israel to facilitate and implement the operational steps necessary to get aid in,” Satterfield contended.

Displaced Palestinians buy fish from a vendor on the first day of the Eid al-Fitr festival, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on April 10, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

The number of trucks entering each day barely crossed 100 through January, after which shipments effectively stopped completely due to protests by far-right activists at Israeli inspection points near the Gaza border, the US envoy said. In February, the IDF began conducting airstrikes against the Hamas-linked police securing aid convoys, leading the force to stop protecting aid convoys, which Satterfield said “shut down assistance moves and spurred intensely violent criminal behavior.”

“We’ve come back from that, but… it’s got to continue,” he said.

The US humanitarian envoy for Gaza noted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu committed to US President Joe Biden last week to ensure that 100 trucks of aid would reach the northern Strip each day. Israel is about halfway to meeting that benchmark, but is not there yet, Satterfield said.

In addition to an insufficient number of trucks, there has also been a decrease in the number of aid organizations willing to distribute aid throughout Gaza following last week’s deadly IDF strike on a World Central Kitchen convoy. Satterfield said the WCK and the United Arab Emirates were conditioning their return to Gaza on Israel showing “in a concrete, demonstrable fashion that lessons have been learned, not just from the WCK tragedy, but from the period of time before that” when the US says roughly 200 aid workers were killed amid its repeated calls for Israel to improve its deconfliction mechanisms.

Israel established a new deconfliction hub between the IDF and aid groups days after the WCK strike, but international organizations were ostensibly looking for improvements to be demonstrated over a long period of time in addition to better assurances from Israel that aid workers will be protected.

The US was also working to have a maritime corridor up and running in the coming weeks, which will be able to bring in at least 100 trucks a day, Satterfield said. “We’re going to get well over 500 trucks a day of commercial and humanitarian assistance. But we’ll still have to be able to distribute it efficiently.”

Palestinians sell sweets in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 9, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Asked whether Hamas has been siphoning off the aid coming into Gaza, Satterfield said the vast majority of assistance being distributed by the UN has reached civilians. He acknowledged that some of the aid may have reached Hamas. However, “Gaza’s population of 2.2 million are not… starving today because the bulk of the assistance delivered has gone to them, not to Hamas; and that’s the fundamental fact.”

Satterfield went on to hail the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories for the work that the quasi-military body has done in facilitating aid into Gaza. “We could not do what we have been able to and could not have achieved the progress that we’ve seen without the engagement of COGAT… They took this on because they had to, and they have done an exceptional job under extremely challenging and difficult circumstances.”

The praise indicated that Washington’s frustration with Israel regarding aid is directed at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the country’s political leadership.

The US envoy was pressed on Hamas’s historic diversion of aid money for military use and asked whether Gaza will always be reliant on outside aid.

Satterfield suggested the policies that Israel has taken in Gaza have led to the current reality.

“When [then-prime minister] Arik Sharon took his decision on unilateral withdrawal, our council at the time was you’re not going to have a happy result unless you do the opposite of what you’re proposing,” claimed the envoy, who was then an official at the State Department, which at the time of the 2005 pullout publicly hailed the move.

“What he proposed was a siege and isolation of Gaza. We said that [what] you need to do is open Gaza to the maximum extent possible to tie it into international, regional and Israeli economic society — provide an alternative vision, provide something other than what comes with desperation,” he said, appearing to reference arguments made at the time in favor of handing over Gaza as part of a bilateral agreement with the Palestinian Authority, the more moderate foil to Hamas, rather than the unilateral withdrawal that Israel carried out.

Proponents of this strategy have argued would have empowered the PA, rather than Hamas, which ended up being seen as the deliverer of the Israeli withdrawal and ejected the Palestinian Authority from Gaza in a bloody coup two years later.

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