Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on Humanitarian Aid
Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on Humanitarian Aid

Via Teleconference

4:03 P.M. EST

MODERATOR:  Hey, everyone.  Thanks for joining this call to discuss U.S. efforts to accelerate and expand humanitarian assistance going into Gaza.  This call is on background, attributable to “senior administration officials,” and embargoed until tomorrow, November 28th, at 5:00 a.m. 

For your awareness, not for your reporting, on the call today, we have [senior administration official], [senior administration official], and [senior administration official]. 

With that, I’ll turn it over to [senior administration official] for remarks at the top.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Great.  Thanks, [moderator], and appreciate everyone joining today.  We just wanted to share some of the latest news in terms of the humanitarian — our efforts to get additional humanitarian assistance into Gaza, as well as go through the President’s leadership on this file to date.

And so, I think as everyone is tracking, since the start of the conflict, President Biden has really spearheaded international efforts to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and to facilitate the sustained flow of lifesaving humanitarian assistance — in particular, food, water, and medicine and other relief supplies. 

And as you all know and many of you were on the trip covering it, President Biden traveled to the region 10 days into the conflict, both to send a strong signal of support for the people of Israel and to stress the importance of efforts to minimize civilian casualties and increase access to humanitarian assistance for Palestinian civilians in Gaza who are caught in the middle of this conflict that was launched by Hamas.

As a result of the President’s trip and the President — at the President’s request, Israel and Egypt committed to cooperate on the provision of humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza.  And within one week of the start of the conflict, President Biden appointed David Satterfield — Ambassador David Satterfield as the Special Envoy for Middle East humanitarian issues to work these issues at a high level on a day-to-day basis between the key parties on the ground.

Now, while — while in Tel Aviv, the President also announced $100 million in humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank.  This builds on the President’s strong commitment to the Palestinian people in making sure that the U.S. is the largest single donor, both to UNRWA, as well as to broader assistance to the pe- — to the Palestinian people.

Over the past seven weeks, from the President to the Secretary of State to our National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, to Ambassador Satterfield in the field, our team has been working around the clock to advance three key lines of effort with respect to the humanitarian response: first, to expand humanitarian access; second, to push for the restoration of essential services — in particular, water has been a key service that we’ve sought to restore; and, three, to secure adequate deconfliction mechanisms for civilian populations, sites, and movements in Gaza.

The President has also consistently stressed the importance of ensuring military operations are conducted in a manner consistent with international humanitarian law, including with respect to the protection of civilians. 

And I think we’ve really made significant progress in terms of humanitarian access and the flow of humanitarian assistance since October 21st, when the President visited, with more than 2,000 trucks having been delivered so far, including goods from food, water, medical assistance and shelter supplies, as well as critically needed fuel.  And this is really thanks to the initial deal the President helped broker and then foster with — by himself and his top senior officials. 

During the first four days of the current humanitarian pause, which we’re delighted has been extended for an additional two days, we saw approximately 800 trucks going into Southern Gaza, and also some assistance has been able to reach Northern Gaza. 

One upcoming event that I wanted to highlight for you all is that, tomorrow, we’re very glad to announce that we will have the first of three relief flights that are facilitated by the unique capabilities of the U.S. military that will be arriving into North Sinai in Egypt.  And this will be to bring — to bring a series of items — medical items, food aid, winter items, given that winter is coming in Gaza — for the civilian population.  And these will be delivered by the United Nations to civilians in need in Gaza.

Two further planeloads will be coming in the coming days, and we’ll be sure to keep you all up to date on that.  This builds on previous five flights that we supported on commercial flights that came into Arish in Northern Egypt.

We are continuing, of course, to work with our regional allies and our humanitarian partners to ensure that the assistance that we bring in continues to flow, is sustained, and that we are able to continue to increase it over time.

Just want to acknowledge, from the President on down, we understand that what is getting in is nowhere near enough for normal life in Gaza, and we will continue to push for additional steps, including the restoration of the flow of commercial goods and additional basic services.

I also just wanted to say that we’re leading among donor countries in trying to ensure that the U.N.’s Flash Appeal is fully funded.  Our USAID administrator, Administrator Power, convened key donors just last Friday to try to strengthen support for the U.N. Flash Appeal. 

And throughout this entire process, we have sought to also solicit feedback from humanitarian and human rights organizations, both directly here at the White House, including listening sessions with the National Security Advisor and other NSC leadership, as well as engagement with those organizations in the field to ensure that we’re receiving real-time feedback from the broad range of implementing partners assisting civilians in Gaza.

So, why don’t I stop there and turn it over to [senior administration official] to share a bit of the latest from the ground with us.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Sure.  Thanks, [senior administration official]. 

And before I start on where we are today, I just want to reiterate [senior administration official’s] point.  On the 16th of October, when Secretary Blinken came out to Israel two days before the President’s visit, it was not one drop of water, not one ounce of fuel, not one pencil would move across the border.

We very rapidly moved, with the President’s visit, to a quite different position of the beginning of trucks coming through with humanitarian assistance to the south but still very tight strictures on supply of fuel. 

We’ve moved, over the just a little more than four weeks since then, to a sustained 240 trucks a day, significant quantities of fuel moving through, and not just goods being delivered — medicine, shelter, food — but also the critical supplies to keep infrastructure — water desalination plants, hospitals, pumping of water from wells, sewerage pumping, solid waste removal — all essential to life in South and Central Gaza, which has now 80 percent of the population of the Gaza Strip.  All of those have been sustained because of our efforts.

And I’ll give a little bit of color to [senior administration official’s] description.  There were periods when the President was on the phone with the Prime Minister of Israel, Jake Sullivan with his counterpart, I with mine, Secretary Blinken with all of the above every single evening to work these kinds of issues through.  And our objective was not to continue to have to make those calls every night, but to get a sustaining mechanism in place.  And that’s where we are right now.

It needs to continue, and it needs to increase. 

And I’ll make one other comment before turning your questions.  The assistance that is being moved in, the fuel that is being provided are not linked to the hostage releases.  Obviously, we have taken maximum advantage of the pause for the hostage releases to move as much as we can, to increase volumes as much as we can.  But what we are doing stands on its own.  And when this current phase of hostage releases is over, we have made very clear that this level or increased levels, ideally, need to be sustained.

So, there is no linkage here, one to the other, of releases with provision of goods with provision of fuel.  We took advantage of this moment, but it needs to be sustained.

And with that, I’ll turn it over to your questions as well.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, both.  Moderator [Operator], if you’d please instruct our listeners on how to queue up for questions.

Q    Hi.  Just had two quick questions.  One was more of a clarification on these three relief flights that are going to begin.  Are these — can you just give a little bit more color on what the items are that are being sent in?  I know you said winter-related items, but how, if at all, are they different than what’s been already being sent in in these 2,000 truckloads? 

And then, secondly, Kirby earlier today expressed hope that additional Americans were going to be released.  It doesn’t seem, in this last group that was released, there were any Americans.  Can you give us any update of what’s going on on that end and if there was any disappointment in that Americans weren’t released in this latest group?  Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, let me just take your questions in reverse order.  So, on the American hostages, of course, we work tirelessly every day.  The President has been on the phone with — with key leaders in the region to push for the release of American hostages.  We, of course, wish that all of our hostages had been released already. 

But I think that the good news from today is that the pause has been extended for a further two days. So, we are very hopeful that we will be able to get those American hostages out in that period. 

Just a little bit more clarity in terms of the question on the assistance flights that will be coming into Arish via U.S. military flights.  You know, some of these things have already gone in, but there will be additional items: of course, you know, more food stocks, but also winter clothing, which is something that the U.N. has prioritized given that the rainy season has started in Gaza; specific food items for — in particular, for children that is ready to use, as well as additional medical supplies, which are — which are in urgent need in Gaza, as everyone knows.

Q    Yes, yes.  Sorry.  Thank you.  [Senior administration official], what can you tell us about your talks with the Israelis in recent days about how to increase humanitarian aid, especially if you look ahead towards the possible operation in Southern Gaza where now around 2 million Palestinians are staying?  How — can you describe us your talks about that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Sure.  And I’ll start with the humanitarian assistance piece.  We’re very pleased that a sustained level of 100 — or rather 240 trucks has been reached.  But it’s not enough to return some sense of basic civilian life for the 2 million people now in South and Central Gaza.

Humanitarian assistance, robust as it is, isn’t enough.  What you need is to get commercial goods in.  And we have been discussing for some weeks now with the government of Israel how we move to phase two.  Phase one is the sustained delivery of basic subsistence humanitarian goods through U.N. and other channels.  We’re at that point now.

But next point is going to commercial goods.  That’s where you start getting into the 300, 400 trucks a day.  To get that volume of assistance in, inspection procedures will need to be increased and enhanced, and you’re going to need to resort to commercial contracting within Gaza to meet the trucks coming in from Egypt. 

We know how it should be done.  We hope that, after this pause concludes, that can be phase two of the humanitarian program. 

But your question, Barak, brought up another critical issue for us.  There are indeed 2 million people, or thereabouts, in South and Central Gaza.  It is extremely important — and from the President down, we have reinforced this in very clear language with the government of Israel — very important that the conduct of the Israeli campaign, when it moves to the south, must be done in a way that is to a maximum extent not designed to produce significant further displacement of persons. 

You cannot have the sort of scale of displacement that took place in the north replicated in the south.  It will be beyond disruptive.  It will be beyond the capacity of any humanitarian support network, however reinforced, however robust to be able to cope with. 

It can’t happen, which means that the manner of the campaign has to be extremely carefully thought through to minimize this consequence of further, significant displacement. 

It also has to be conducted in a way that is maximally deconflicted with humanitarian facilities — power, water, humanitarian sites, hospitals, other facilities — including the many U.N.-supported shelters located throughout South and Central Gaza. 

Now we’ve had this discussion — we have these discussions on a constant basis with Israel.  And if you ask me to characterize the response, it’s a receptive one.  There is an understanding that a different type of campaign has to be conducted in the south than was conducted in the north. 

To reiterate what you’ve already heard from the President, from other senior officials of the government: We want the objectives of this campaign — the elimination of Hamas as a governing, as a threatening force in Gaza and the threat to Israel.  And — but how the campaign is conducted, particularly in the south is exceedingly important, because of the fragile situation with this very significant internal displacement already occurred on the ground.

Q    Hello, can you hear me?  Hello?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes. 

Q    Oh, sorry.  Just — just to follow up on the previous question.  Whether you have — you have gotten assurances from Israel — I know that the pamphlets have been dropped asking people in the south to go to safe zones.  There aren’t — don’t appear to be any safe zones.  Or do you believe that there are safe zones set up that are going to require the actual movement of people?

And also, the United Nations has said that in order to increase assistance, along the ways that you’ve outlined, that they really would like another border entry place, specifically Kerem Shalom, to be opened in Southern Gaza.  Have you discussed that with the Israelis?  And is there any movement in that direction?  Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, (inaudible), to the first part of your question, what we are discussing is not the safe zone, the humanitarian zone that almost a month ago was proposed by the government of Israel. 

What we are talking about are practical arrangements on the ground, multiple arrangements.  What you might call “areas of deconfliction,” which are approximate to, already contained U.N. facilities and shelters, but where, based on the best judgment, they — people there or people who may wish to come there would not be subject to kinetic activity.  That’s very different than the original concept.  It’s practical, pragmatic arrangements at multiple places on the ground. 

No one is going to be forced out of their homes by intent.  And these areas are not designed as places preemptively for people to go to.  It is inevitable though that in any kinetic campaign, however carefully managed, there is going to be a certain inevitable movement of persons who will judge their safety to the better off somewhere than where they are.

This is an attempt to be able to locate, to delineate those multiple areas where there will not be kinetic activity, and this is a very different concept than the one initially announced — declared by Israel. 

Now, on the second crossing issue: The Israeli government has made a political decision, which I do not see any sign of changing so long as hostages are held by Hamas, of closing Kerem Shalom to movement of goods from Israeli territory directly into Gaza.  There are robust inspection facilities at Kerem Shalom.  There’s every possibility that those inspection facilities could be used, but not for direct movement of assistance or goods from Israel into Gaza, across the Kerem Shalom frontier.

Q    Hi, yes.  Danny Kemp from AFP.  I was just wondering: Is there a sense that these flights — you know, by putting these, you know, these three planes — these U.S. assets so near Gaza and kind of creating this lifeline — is this kind of a subtle way of putting pressure on Israel to keep up the truce for as long as possible, possibly beyond a two-day extension?  Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I mean, I think you’ve heard many senior officials from here at the White House and from other parts of the government say that we would like to see the deal — the current humanitarian pause deal extended as long as possible.  And the formula there is, you know, every 10 hostages, you get an additional day of the pause.  So, we would like to see that going as long as there are additional hostages to get out. 

No, the — the intent here is simply to ensure that a significant flow of humanitarian assistance, in particular the kind of humanitarian assistance that is needed right now — some of the winterization items that I mentioned — are arriving quickly into El Arish for onward transit to Gaza. 

We’ve been able to see a surge in goods in recent days during the pause, and we want to do our part, as the U.S., to make sure that that flow continues in a robust manner.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, I’ll just build on what [senior administration official] said.  The movement over the last four or five days of assistance has been so significant in volume that a backfill into El Arish is now needed, and these planes are part of that backfill.  There’s quite a quantity of goods enroute to El Arish from other destinations.  But this is a significant contribution at a moment when that fill is very much needed.

Q    Hello?  Can you hear me?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes.

Q    Okay.  Great.  This is Nadia Bilbassy with Al Arabiya.  Thank you for doing this.  My question for [senior administration official].  You know, [senior administration official] before the war, there was 2,500 beds in hospitals in Gaza.  Now we have around 35,000 wounded up till now.  What’s the feasibility of having field hospitals?  Is it something that you can work with the international community to provide field hospitals within this small period of — short period, rather, of the humanitarian pause — especially that doctors were saying they were operating on kids without anesthesia?  Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes.  Nadia, putting in field hospitals has absolutely been part of our approach over the course of last month, and we’re very pleased that a number of field hospitals are already, in South Gaza, being established, and we see several more on the way, both national provision — the governments of Jordan, Turkey, the UAE have all been engaged in this — as well as NGOs Médecins Sans Frontières, ICRC, and our own International Medical Corps, IMC.

So, yes, we do see the value cumulatively of the hundreds of beds, surgical provisions that these multiple field hospitals will be able to provide.  Some countries have also moved towards provision of hospital ships.  That’s a little more complicated than the kind of care that can be provided in a field hospital.  But I know the French have a hospital ship bound for El Arish, which they hope can become operational in the near future.

Q    Hi, thanks.  This is Ben Samuels from Haaretz.  A lot of human rights organizations are worrying about the potential for epidemic disease outbreak.  So, beyond what is going in over the next few days with these flights, what contingency plans does the U.S. government have in place to combat, you know, whether it’s cholera or any other epidemic disease?  And then a second question: How much of a hindrance is it that the U.S. can’t directly provide funds to the Palestinian Authority because of the Taylor Force Act?  Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Among the medical goods that are coming into Gaza now are vaccines.  But the real key to preventing the kind of outbreaks — typhoid, cholera — which tend to occur in situations like this is increasing the supply of potable water and sanitation.  And that is why we have placed such emphasis since the beginning of this engagement on moving as much fuel as possible in in order to power everything from sewerage pumps, to the D cell system in the south, to getting the Israelis to restore service as we did to two of the three main national carriers piping water into Gaza. 

You’ve got to get potable water supplies in to try to avoid these diseases.  We have been focused on this, as has the U.N., but fuel is critical.  The fuel that is being provided now has made a big difference.  More fuel needs to continue to come.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  And just on the question about the Taylor Force Act, you know, I think our focus here is really on the humanitarian file.  And given that we don’t have a Palestinian Authority representative in Gaza, we don’t have a Palestinian partner that we could provide this assistance directly to, UNRWA has really performed an incredible role here in being the facilitators for all of the U.N. and other assistance that has gone into Gaza.  And we really couldn’t do this without — without UNRWA.

MODERATOR:  Thanks, everyone.  That’s all the time we have.  Thanks to our speakers and you all for joining.

As a reminder, this call was on background, attributable to “senior administration officials,” and it’s embargoed until 5:00 a.m. tomorrow, November 28.

Thanks so much.

4:31 P.M. EST

Official news published at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2023/11/27/background-press-call-by-senior-administration-officials-on-humanitarian-aid/