US envoy: Gazans who fled south must be allowed to return home ‘as soon as possible’

Washington also increasingly warns Israel it must demonstrate how it will protect Palestinians in southern Gaza before it expands its military offensive to that area

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

File: David Satterfield at Rice University in Houston, Texas, October 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
File: David Satterfield at Rice University in Houston, Texas, October 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

As Israel prepares for a days-long ceasefire in Gaza, but also for the expansion of its ground offensive once the truce expires, US officials have in recent days been outlining their expectations from Jerusalem for the continuation of the campaign.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration’s envoy for the humanitarian situation in Gaza said that Palestinians from northern Gaza who fled to the south in recent weeks “must be allowed to return to homes in the north as soon as possible.”

On Tuesday, a senior Israeli official briefing reporters on the recently inked hostage deal stressed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had blocked the inclusion of a clause that would have allowed for Palestinians who evacuated to the south at Israel’s behest to return to the north, where the IDF still plans to continue operating after the several days’ pause in hostilities expires.

It is also not clear that many of those who fled south will be able to return once the fighting ends, as much of the area has been destroyed by the war.

In an interview with the Lebanese broadcaster al-Jadeed, David Satterfield reiterated the US position against the displacement of Palestinians. Recent proposals from right-wing and even centrist Israeli lawmakers have called for countries around the world to take in Gazans and promote their voluntary resettlement.

Satterfield clarified that the US “wants to see Israel succeed in its campaign,” and warned the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon against continued missile fire at Israel if it wanted to avoid an escalation.

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby also this week stressed the administration’s opposition to Israel expanding its military incursion into southern Gaza unless it demonstrates how it will protect the Palestinian civilians it ordered to evacuate to that region from the north.

US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, October 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Kirby said during a press briefing Tuesday that Israel must have “a clearly articulated plan for how they’re going to protect the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people that have now been added to the population because they were asked to leave by the Israelis. There’s an obligation there for [Israel] to factor that into their planning.”

Biden officials have been making this point publicly since Sunday, after privately urging Israel to limit strikes in southern Gaza for weeks, a US official told The Times of Israel.

Kirby’s comments echoed those of US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller, who said Monday: “We do have concerns that concentrating all civilians in one area does leave them vulnerable to harm, and we are trying to work through [this] with the government of Israel.”

Palestinians flee to the southern Gaza Strip on Salah al-Din Street in Bureij, Gaza Strip, November 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Miller also reiterated the Biden administration’s objection to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion that the IDF will maintain security responsibility over the Gaza Strip after the war. He did, however, acknowledge that there would likely be some IDF presence in Gaza for a brief period.

“We understand that the Israeli military is not going to… just disappear the next day. There is going to have to be some sort of transition period, so there isn’t a vacuum of security in Gaza. We will work with partners in the region to figure out what that transition period [will look like],” Miller said.

The US has been working to rally international agencies and Arab allies to help manage Gaza’s security during a transitional period before a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority can return to ruling the Strip, but has faced pushback from regional governments thus far.

Palestinians look for survivors amid the rubble of a destroyed building following an apparent Israeli bombardment in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on November 12, 2023. (Mahmud HAMS / AFP)

Asked Monday what US President Joe Biden meant when he spoke of a “revitalized” PA, Kirby said: “What it looks like is going to depend on the Palestinian people. but what he’s referring to there is a Palestinian Authority that has the credibility, has the legitimacy, has the authority, has the support of all Palestinians, so that they can effectively help with post conflict governance particularly in Gaza.”

Satterfield also said Tuesday that Israel has responded to a US request to create a “deconfliction mechanism” to better ensure that humanitarian workers are protected during ongoing IDF strikes in Gaza.

“We impressed upon Israel that more had to be done. There needed to be a single coordinated, functional deconfliction mechanism. It happens in other areas of conflict and it needs to happen now,” he said in a webinar hosted by the Al-Monitor news site.

“Israel has taken those steps and I believe that the deconfliction mechanism is very shortly going to go into action. It is tragic that there had to be deaths before this was done, but the important thing is that Israel does recognize the need and is active,” Satterfield said.

IDF soldiers operating in the northern Gaza Strip in a handout photo released for publication on November 22, 2023. (IDF)

While aid organizations have been increasingly calling on Israel to reopen its Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza to allow for a larger flow of aid into the Strip, Satterfield said Egypt’s Rafah crossing was sufficient on its own for the supply of aid into the Hamas-run enclave.

Rafah was designed to serve as a crossing for pedestrians and small vehicle traffic, but Satterfield said it could still handle the volume of assistance needed for Gaza.

Israel closed its Kerem Shalom crossing following the shock October 7 Hamas onslaught against its citizens, saying it would not directly facilitate aid into Gaza as long as terror groups inside continue to hold onto some 240 hostages taken from Israel that Saturday.

Satterfield said that “the Israeli government has made very clear that it is not prepared to see that change,” indicating that the US was not pressuring Jerusalem to change its policy on the matter.

The US envoy added that the upcoming hostage release deal, which will include a four-day ceasefire, represents a “critical opportunity” to surge more aid into Gaza.

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