newsU.S.-Israel Relations

Biden administration shifts tone, calls Israeli ministers ‘obstacle’ to Gaza aid

“The convoy last week really encapsulated the frustration by the White House and much of Congress, especially Democrats,” the Atlantic Council’s Jonathan Panikoff told JNS.

U.S. Central Command and the Royal Jordanian Air Force conducted a combined humanitarian assistance airdrop into Northern Gaza on March 5, 2024, at 2:30 p.m. (Israel time) to provide essential relief to civilians affected by the ongoing conflict. Credit: United States Army Central.
U.S. Central Command and the Royal Jordanian Air Force conducted a combined humanitarian assistance airdrop into Northern Gaza on March 5, 2024, at 2:30 p.m. (Israel time) to provide essential relief to civilians affected by the ongoing conflict. Credit: United States Army Central.

U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller accused Israeli ministers of being an “obstacle” to Gaza aid on Tuesday, as Washington continues to press Israel to do more to help Palestinian civilians.

Miller was asked at the State Department’s daily press briefing what White House adviser John Kirby meant on Monday when he said that some “inorganic obstacles” to aid delivery had been put in place by the Israeli cabinet.

“You have seen ministers in the Israeli government block the release of flour from the port at Ashdod,” Miller said. “You have seen ministers of the Israeli government supporting protests that blocked aid from going into Kerem Shalom. All of those things are obstacles coming from ministers inside the Israeli government that we have called out, that we have said should end.”

Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, told JNS that the Biden administration has clearly changed its tone, reflecting White House frustration about the aid situation in Gaza. That’s been particularly the case in the wake of last week’s riot, during which dozens of Palestinians were killed while aid was being delivered.

“I think the convoy last week—even accounting for the facts coming out that there were two different incidents—really encapsulated the frustration by the White House and much of Congress, especially Democrats. Even a small number of Gazans seeking food being killed by the IDF, and even if they rushed the area, should not have happened,” Panikoff said.

“The idea that five months into the conflict, there’s still not sufficient planning for food delivery was rather shocking to U.S. officials,” Panikoff added.

Miller did not name the ministers that Washington held responsible. 

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich prevented the transfer of a U.S. shipment of flour to the U.N.’s Palestinian aid agency, UNRWA, in February. That issue was resolved later that month when the flour was instead transferred to the U.N.’s World Food Programme.

The Israeli Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, the authority that is responsible for aid transfers into Gaza, has repeatedly claimed that “there are no limits on the amount of humanitarian aid that can enter Gaza.” COGAT has blamed U.N. agencies for the delay in aid distribution to the Palestinians.

“If UNRWA wasn’t such a failure logistically, perhaps investing its resources in other areas instead, more aid would reach the people of Gaza,” COGAT wrote to Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of UNRWA, on Feb. 26. “You distributed less than 80% of the aid that entered Gaza. There is still a huge amount waiting on the Gazan side of Keren Shalom.”

Biden administration officials held Israel responsible on Tuesday for the dearth of aid going into Gaza.

Standing alongside Qatar’s foreign minister at the State Department, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the humanitarian situation inside Gaza “unacceptable and unsustainable.”

“Israel has to maximize every possible means, every possible method of getting assistance to people who need it,” Blinken said  “It requires more crossings. It requires more aid getting in. And once that aid is in, it requires making sure it can get to the people who need it.”

Airdrop
U.S. Central Command and the Royal Jordanian Air Force conducted a combined humanitarian assistance airdrop into Northern Gaza on March 5, 2024, at 2:30 p.m. (Israel time) to provide essential relief to civilians affected by the ongoing conflict. Credit: United States Army Central.

“We will continue to press that every single day because the situation as it stands is simply unacceptable,” he added.

That message was also conveyed repeatedly to Israeli War Cabinet member Benny Gantz during meetings with administration officials on Monday and Tuesday, per U.S. readouts of those meetings.

“Israel must take urgent steps to expand the delivery and distribution of humanitarian aid, including by opening additional crossings,” Miller said, in a readout of Gantz’s meeting with Blinken.  “The secretary underscored the need for a credible and implementable humanitarian plan prior to any major military operation in Rafah, given the risks to civilians.”

An unnamed senior Israeli official told Axios on Tuesday that Gantz believes Israel is “in deep s**t” with the Biden administration over the Gaza aid issue and that Gantz now thinks he should have visited Washington months ago.

“There is a big difficulty right now in the relations with the U.S. and we have to find a way to overcome it,” the official reportedly told Axios.

While boarding Air Force One on Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden was asked what his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is like these days.

“Like it’s always been,” Biden replied, smiling.

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