newsU.S.-Israel Relations

Israel ‘effectively the controlling power in Gaza,’ US special envoy says

David Satterfield, a U.S. special envoy, called it a matter of Egyptian “national principle” not to resettle Palestinians.

Ambassador David Satterfield speaks at a senior executive seminar at the Marshall Center on June 8, 2018 in Germany. Credit: Karl-Heinz Wedhorn/Marshall Center.
Ambassador David Satterfield speaks at a senior executive seminar at the Marshall Center on June 8, 2018 in Germany. Credit: Karl-Heinz Wedhorn/Marshall Center.

Although Israel left the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005, the veteran Middle East diplomat David Satterfield and U.S. special envoy for Middle East humanitarian issues, said in a Wednesday briefing that “Israel is effectively the controlling power in Gaza, and with it comes obligations.”

Jason Isaacson, chief policy and political affairs officer at the American Jewish Committee who moderated the AJC-sponsored virtual briefing, asked Satterfield about Israel being a “controlling power” 19 years after decamping.

“It is a practical matter,” Satterfield said. “Israel has a responsibility.”

The diplomat, who began his role on Oct. 15, spoke with Isaacson in an event titled “The humanitarian aid situation in Gaza.”

An audience member asked Satterfield about Cairo’s responsibility to the Palestinians given that Egypt maintains a firm border with Gaza. Responding to the question, Satterfield rejected “what you refer to as a blockade.”

“We understand that for Egypt, it is now, as it was before Oct. 7, a fundamental existential premise that Palestinians should remain in Gaza, and not be resettled or moved to Egypt,” Satterfield said.

“We appreciated it before Oct. 7 as a basic point of national principle,” he added. “We and Israel appreciate it after Oct. 7.”

During the briefing, Satterfield said that U.S. President Joe Biden supports the objective of Israel’s campaign, “as complex and difficult as it is to ensure that Hamas, this terrorist group, is never in a position to threaten Israel again, as he did on October 7.” Biden also believes that Hamas must not be “in a position either to govern the Palestinians of Gaza or to deny governance to anyone else,” the diplomat said.

Satterfield added that Biden “made clear that in order for him to be able to keep that space open, to give you the time you need, you have got to be as assiduous, as focused, as committed on the humanitarian side as you are on the kinetic side. 

“First, because it’s right. It is the proper thing for democracies to do,” he said. “Secondly, it is strategically critical.”

While it isn’t Jerusalem’s obligation to distribute aid in Gaza, “It is Israel’s absolute responsibility, in bright letters, to facilitate in every way possible, the activities of the international humanitarian community to distribute assistance,” he said.

 ‘A logistics limiter’

Israeli officials and others have disputed the claims of aid organizations, that famine looms due to shortages of aid flowing into Gaza.

Satterfield said it’s not about reconciling divergent figures.

“On behalf of the United States government and our own experts within the government, as well as our consultations with those outside government and our partners in the international community, there is no debate regarding the magnitude of the humanitarian situation in Gaza,” he said. “Full stop.”

Satterfield acknowledged that the Jewish state has increased humanitarian aid efforts since Biden appeared to give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an ultimatum during an April 4 phone call.

But that increase in recent days “doesn’t make up for five months of something very, very different,” Satterfield said.

“The biggest limiter to the ability of the international community to deliver assistance right now, as opposed to in months past during the time of kinetic operations, is the deficit of trucks in Gaza to take the enhanced volume of assistance and distribute it,” he said.

The Biden administration is “exerting” the Israeli government and military to “mobilize as many trucks as possible to get into Gaza as quickly as possible so that distribution can take place,” the diplomat said. “This is not really any Israeli limiter at this point. It’s a logistics limiter on the international community.”

The Israeli government has long said that aid that it screened and transferred into Gaza had sat near the fence for extended periods of time, without international organizations delivering it.

The United Nations and other international organizations have identified a “significant” number of trucks, “some of which are ready to enter now and are contracted, others in the final stage of contracting,” Satterfield said. A global outreach campaign is underway to encourage more donations of trucks, he said.

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