State Department official reaffirms US commitment to humanitarian aid for Gazans

State Department official reaffirms US commitment to humanitarian aid for Gazans
State Department official reaffirms US commitment to humanitarian aid for Gazans

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - CHICAGO: The US is working to speed up the delivery of humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza, all of whom are at risk of malnutrition or famine, a leading official from State Department said on Wednesday.

Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs Barbara A. Leaf also said that efforts continue in Washington to deter Iran and its proxies from attempting to provoke any regional expansion of the conflict, amid concerns about escalations in violence in Iraq, Lebanon, Europe and Yemen.

President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken remain committed to securing peace between Israel and the Palestinians through direct negotiations, Leaf said, and to using all available means to provide the population of Gaza with aid, including the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

The Biden administration is also examining the circumstances surrounding the discovery this week of mass graves in Gaza, she added. Officials are “making inquiries and trying to learn, ourselves” but she had no additional information to share at this time.

Regarding the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, Leaf said: “One hundred percent of the population in Gaza is at risk of famine and malnutrition. Deconfliction (a military term for efforts to reduce the risk of friendly fire or the targeting of noncombatants) coordination remains a major issue for humanitarian workers and exports.

“We are pushing to accelerate the delivery of assistance on all fronts by air, land and sea. We urge Israel, and continue to urge Israel, to improve deconfliction and take tangible steps to allow the entry of more aid, and distribution of that aid, throughout Gaza. We also believe the UN, including UNRWA, is indispensable for that effort.

“We are committed to advancing enduring peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike, including through practical time-bound and irreversible steps to work toward establishing a Palestinian state existing side-by-side with Israel.”

Leaf declined to comment on how funding would be directed to help address the “extreme” humanitarian needs in Gaza but acknowledged that the US Congress and several other major donor countries had suspended funding for UNRWA following allegations in January by the Israeli government that 12 of the agency’s workers participated in the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas on Israel.

A report published this week following an independent inquiry into UNRWA’s mechanisms for ensuring the neutrality of its workers stated that Israeli authorities have not provided any evidence to back up their claims. Some countries have resumed their funding of the agency but the US has not.

“The Congress has ruled out the US providing assistance directly to UNRWA,” said Leaf. “There are many other avenues, channels and organizations by which we can assist the Palestinian people.

“We do recognize that the functions that UNRWA carries out are indispensable and that there is no ready replacement for UNRWA in carrying out those responsibilities, or for the staff that puts their lives at risk every day to carry out those functions. We are certainly encouraging all of our donor partners to look to these needs in a coordinated way.”

Leaf defended the decision of the Biden administration last week to veto a Security Council resolution calling for recognition of Palestine as full member state of the UN, on the grounds that the resolution “makes no sense” because Palestine does not have identifiable borders. She added that Biden “stands firmly behind the very legitimate quest of the Palestinians for a state of their own” but “peace must come through direct negotiations with Israel.”

The goal of the Biden administration is to “reunify” the West Bank and Gaza Strip under the leadership of a reformed Palestinian Authority, Leaf said, paving the way for a two-state solution through negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis.

“The West Bank and Gaza must be reunified under the Palestinian Authority,” she added. “A revitalized PA is essential to delivering results for the Palestinian people in both the West Bank and Gaza, and establishing the conditions for stability.”

Commenting of the wider regional situation, Leaf condemned the escalation of violent attacks by Iran and its proxies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.

She described Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea over the past few months as “outrageous” and said they represent “recklessness and inhumanity on the part of the Houthis in targeting commercial vessels, some military vessels, but commercial vessels that have absolutely nothing to do with the conflict in Gaza. It really moots the notion that these attacks are in some way going to support the Palestinian cause. They do not. What they do is put innocent civilians in harm’s way.”

Leaf also condemned the Iranian missile strikes that targeted Israel last week but did not mention the Israeli missile strikes that killed 12 people at an Iranian consulate building beside the nation’s main embassy in the Syrian capital, Damascus, the week before.

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