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Biden administration emphasizes ‘humanitarian crisis’ in Gaza

U.S. President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other officials appear to be shifting their tone somewhat.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland before flying to Israel and Jordan on Oct. 11, 2023. Credit: Chuck Kennedy/State Department.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland before flying to Israel and Jordan on Oct. 11, 2023. Credit: Chuck Kennedy/State Department.

At the 2023 Human Rights Campaign national dinner on Saturday, U.S. President Joe Biden was touting his administration’s record with LGBTQ Americans when a woman began repeatedly yelling, “Let Gaza live. Ceasefire now.”

The president paused several times to try to hear the woman over the din of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. “I don’t know who’s hollering down there, but I can’t hear,” he said. And moments later: “Well, thank you, whatever you’re saying. I’m going to say thank you. I can’t hear you.”

Later on in the talk, Biden turned to the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel, which he called “the worst massacre of Jewish people since the Holocaust,” noting the “more than 1,300 innocent lives lost in Israel, including at least 27 Americans. Children and grandparents alike kidnapped, held hostage by Hamas.”

Immediately, he pivoted to the “humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” noting that “innocent Palestinian families and a vast majority [of Palestinians in Gaza] have nothing to do with Hamas. They’re being used as human shields.”

That transition between and juxtaposition of the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has come to characterize conversations between U.S. officials at other world leaders since at least Thursday.

Nearly an hour after Shabbat had begun in Washington, the White House released a readout of two phone calls. On Thursday, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan talked about “Hamas’s brutal terrorist attack against Israel and the humanitarian situation in Gaza” with United Nation Secretary-General António Guterres.

And on Friday, Principal Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power talked about “the current difficult humanitarian conditions in Gaza” with Tor Wennesland, U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process.

Finer and Power also talked with Wennesland about “ongoing engagements” with Egypt, Israel and others to “enable safe movement for civilians seeking protection in Gaza and to facilitate humanitarian access and assistance—including water, food and medical care,” per the readout.

Biden spoke separately on Saturday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—their fifth time speaking since the attacks on Oct. 7—and with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, per U.S. and Israeli readouts.

The U.S. president reiterated unwavering U.S. support for Israel, updated Netanyahu on U.S. military support and discussed U.S. coordination with the United Nations, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and others to facilitate Gazan access to water, food and medical care.

According to an Israeli readout of the meeting, Netanyahu thanked Biden for “deep and unconditional” U.S. support of Israel’s right to self-defense and for the visits to Israel of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

“The two leaders discussed the situation especially in the south but also in general. The prime minister thanked the president for the extensive and swift U.S. security and intelligence assistance” and briefed him on the “horrors perpetuated by Hamas against the families of the area” that he saw on a visit to the Gaza Strip, per the Israeli readout.

Biden condemned Hamas’s “brutal attack on Israel and reiterated that Hamas does not stand for the Palestinian people’s right to dignity and self-determination” in a phone call with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, per a White House readout.

Abbas told Biden about “his engagement in the region and his efforts to bring urgently needed humanitarian assistance to Palestinian people, particularly in Gaza,” and Biden offered Abbas “his full support for these important and ongoing efforts,” and said Washington was working with the United Nations, Egypt, Jordan and Israel to arrange for humanitarian supplies to reach Gaza civilians. 

Blinken travels

The prior day, Blinken met in person in Amman separately with with Abbas and King Abdullah II of Jordan. In discussions with the king, Blinken discussed the “horrific Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel,” containing the conflict and securing release of hostages per Matthew Miller, the State Department spokesman. Blinken also “discussed ways to address the humanitarian needs of civilians in Gaza while Israel conducts legitimate security operations to defend itself from terrorism.”

Blinken thanked Abbas for efforts “to further calm the situation for the benefit of Palestinians, Israelis and the tens of thousands of Americans who also call the West Bank home,” per Miller.

Also on Saturday, Blinken talked about Israel, Hamas and the region over the phone with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and in person with United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, per Foggy Bottom readouts and according to Miller.

Prior to the meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Riyadh, the Saudi minister said the priority must be “to find a way to quickly de-escalate the situation, to quickly bring back peace, at least stopping the guns, and then working towards addressing also the humanitarian challenges.”

“The humanitarian situation in Gaza is very, very difficult, and we need to work together to make sure that access for humanitarian relief and humanitarian goods is allowed,” the Saudi official said. “This is something that is critical and is of course enshrined in international law.”

Blinken spoke next. “I would just say first, of course, that no country can or should be expected to tolerate what Israel has just been on the receiving end of, which is an attack that almost defies description and words, in which more than 1,300 of its people were slaughtered along with the nationals of more than 30 other countries, by Hamas.”

The U.S. secretary added that as Israel tries to prevent such an attack from happening again and acts on its “legitimate right” to self-defense, it is important to protect civilians. “We’re working together to do exactly that, in particular working on establishing safe areas in Gaza, working on establishing corridors so that humanitarian assistance can reach people who need it,” he said. “None of us want to see suffering by civilians on any side, whether it’s in Israel, whether it’s in Gaza, whether it’s anywhere else.”

On Friday, Blinken spoke by phone with Holy See Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and thanked him for the pope’s “strong statement in support of Israel,” according to Miller.

Blinken also discussed Israel during in-person meetings on Friday with Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani.

At the latter meeting, the Qatari official, who is also foreign affairs minister, referred to the “occupied Palestinian territories” and the “political humanitarian complications of this situation.” The minister also said that his country is in “a great position as a partner in achieving and bringing peace.”

Asked later about whether Doha would expel the senior Hamas leadership that lives there, the Qatari official said that the “Hamas political office” in Qatar is a communication mechanism to bring “peace and calm into the region, not to instigate any war. And this is the purpose of that office.”

Blinken said, “As Israel continues to respond to Hamas’s devastating attack, the United States will ensure that it has what it needs to defend its people. At the same time, we’re in constant communication with Israeli officials and with multilateral and international organizations—humanitarian organizations, including the United Nations agencies, including the ICRC, to get aid to civilians in Gaza.” (The ICRC is the International Committee of the Red Cross.)

Blinken cautioned against losing sight of what’s happening. “Israel is conducting operations in Gaza because Hamas carried out terrorist attacks that killed—in the most horrific way—1,300 of its people. Hamas terrorists slaughtered, raped, mutilated, tortured, burned innocent civilians—from babies to the elderly, men, women, boys and girls,” he said. 

“Efforts to get humanitarian aid into Gaza are complicated by the fact that Hamas continues to use innocent civilians as human shields, and is reportedly blocking roads to prevent Palestinians from moving to southern Gaza, out of harm’s way,” Blinken added. “We know the humanitarian situation is urgent. We’re actively engaged with partners, including Qatar, to get aid to those who need it.”

No Biden trip to Israel

Also on Friday, Olivia Dalton, White House principal deputy press secretary, was asked during a press gaggle on Air Force One en route to Philadelphia, whether Biden intended to visit Israel to show support, as he did earlier in the year in Ukraine

“I—I certainly have no presidential travel to preview for you today,” Dalton said. She noted that Blinken and Austin had visited and that Biden had talked four times with Netanyahu in the last week. “We’re going to continue that level of significant engagement as we continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel and make sure that they have every level of support in the days and weeks ahead,” she said.

She was also asked about reports that Hamas was setting up roadblocks to prevent Gazans from leaving. “If that is true, should the Israelis not move forward with any plans for any ground invasion?” the reporter asked.

“What you’ve just noted here is the brutality of Hamas, right? Once again, they are using civilians as human shields,” Dalton said. “Hamas continues to engage in tactics like using tunnels under residential buildings to conduct their operations, holing up in hospitals and mosques and schools. This is a terrorist organization with no regard for human life, with no regard for civilians. And, you know—and frankly, it is barbaric and brutal, and we’ve got to continue to call it out.”

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