Thursday, February 29, 2024

Ramallah, West Bank

ADMINISTRATOR SAMANTHA POWER: Good afternoon everybody. I am just wrapping up four days here on the ground, first in Jordan, in Israel, up against the Gaza crossing yesterday, and today in the West Bank. And I have heard, firsthand, from people whose lives have been affected by this war. And I want to begin today by addressing terrible reports that we have just seen of Gazan civilians being killed while trying to get desperately urgently needed food to feed themselves and their loved ones. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is catastrophic. 

Over the last few days, I've had the chance to spend time with humanitarian workers who have just come out of Gaza, with people whose family members are in Gaza. And the reports that I'm hearing from colleagues, many of whom I've worked with over many, several decades now –  in working in the humanitarian sphere – the reports of the situation on the ground are among the worst that I have heard about in my career. 

Water is so scarce that some people in Gaza are resorting to drinking saltwater. Food has been so scarce that some have resorted to cooking with animal feed and weeds. In the last week, after months of U.S. diplomacy to try to increase the flow of humanitarian assistance into Gaza, the average number of trucks getting in has been just 96. 96 trucks for a population of more than two million people. That is a fraction of what is needed. People are so desperate to feed their hungry – starving, in some cases – children. And we know from all over the world that when demand – for food, for water, for medicine – when demand so outpaces supply, we see desperation and we see chaos. And that is precisely why throughout my time here in the region, I have stressed again and again, the pain and desperation that Gazans are feeling and that it is absolutely essential that we dramatically increase the flow of assistance of humanitarian aid into Gaza, particularly to the north. 

And I want to be clear, this is not about increasing the number of trucks by five, by ten a day, it is about flooding the zone, about surging vast quantities of food, medicine, and shelter to the people who need it. It is about a sustained humanitarian pipeline, pipelines that reach civilians in desperate and growing need. 

As you've heard over these last months, every conversation that I, that Secretary Blinken, that President Biden, that all U.S. officials have had with our counterparts have stressed the importance of addressing this growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Israel must open new crossing points into Gaza, must ease customs restrictions that have commodities – like flour that could be reaching people in need, that could be increasing the amount of food available to civilians inside Gaza – sitting in ports, unable to clear customs. And I’ll come back to this – it is essential that the parties come together urgently to agree to an extended humanitarian pause in which assistance can flow into Gaza at scale and Israeli hostages, of course, can be reunited with their loved ones. 

Let me also say this about today's horrific events. We do not yet know the details of what transpired but what we do know for now is that civilians appear to have been injured and killed trying to get food for their severely malnourished children. That cannot happen. Civilians must be safe in being able to access humanitarian supplies for their loved ones. That is a core humanitarian imperative. And it is one that we advocate for everywhere in the world, and it is absolutely essential that that humanitarian imperative be respected in Gaza. 

I know investigations are underway to find out exactly, again, what happened today. But again, a core principle that applies everywhere USAID and our partners work around the world is that desperate civilians trying to feed their starving families should not be shot at. Getting more humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza and making sure humanitarian workers can safely deliver it, as we saw today, is really a matter of life and death. 

Earlier today, here in Ramallah, I also sat down again with Gazans, who sometimes go for days if not longer, weeks, unable to ascertain the welfare of their loved ones. I met just now with some business leaders to talk about the economic hardships and other difficulties faced by Palestinians here in the West Bank. And one of the business leaders – a Palestinian who had grown up in Gaza – shared that he had learned that 16 of his grandchildren had been killed in a single day. Another businessman here in the West Bank shared that 300 members of his extended family had been killed over the five months of this war. And we know that these are familiar reports, and that every night parents in Gaza are deciding where their children should sleep, how they should sleep, whether they will be able to sleep with hunger, but also, they're making decisions about how to separate their children so that all of their children are not in one place, because of the risk of being killed in the night.

In my meetings with Israeli officials, I reiterated our commitment as the United States government to do absolutely everything in our power to bring hostages home. Again, you know, families in Israel not knowing are their loved ones, alive or dead. Are they making it through the night? Do they have access, you know, they don't have access to the medicines that they might need. 

This is a humanitarian catastrophe. And too many innocents have been caught up in it. In terms of the access challenges, so many bottlenecks need to be overcome in order to be able to surge the assistance that is needed. Inspection delays must be overcome. Damaged roads must be repaired. At the Kerem Shalom border crossing yesterday, I saw firsthand the challenges of getting aid safely into Gaza. And as the supply of assistance has gone down, not up over these recent weeks, that has abetted a climate of lawlessness because civilians who see a truck don't know whether that truck will be the last truck that they will see and that again is an important part of the context for the horrible events that appear to have occurred today.

Getting the border crossings at Kerem Shalom and Rafah functioning at full capacity is key. Opening up those additional land routes into Gaza and very specifically into northern Gaza is essential. Ending the severe restrictions on what we hope will become a land corridor from Jordan is very important. And then establishing much stronger protections for humanitarians who are delivering life-saving aid – that is absolutely key. 

To help scale the response, as we push to overcome these impediments, I announced an additional $53 million in urgently needed assistance, which brings the U.S. total since October 7 to $180 million for food, for treatment, for acute malnutrition, for shelter, for water, medical assistance and the like. But again, to be clear, funding is not enough. Aid workers have to be able to get sufficient assistance for Palestinians to be able to meet their urgent needs – needs that all of us would have, if similarly situated. And the workers again, must be able to distribute that assistance in conditions where civilians don't fear that that distribution could be their last. 

Beyond the issues that I've just described and engaged with our interlocutors on these last days, I also had the chance to reiterate President Biden's grave concern about Israel's stated intention to conduct military operations in Rafah where right now more than a million civilians, a million people are crowded into 21 square miles of land. The United States has been clear that we cannot support a campaign in Rafah without a credible plan to protect civilians who are living there. And we have seen no credible plan to move these people who are in Rafah to safety, to get them adequate shelter, and to relocate the humanitarian operations that are flowing through Kerem Shalom and Rafah. 

Hamas cannot be allowed to carry out another attack like that on October 7. I saw the horrors that were perpetrated firsthand yesterday in visiting Kibbutz Be’eri, where terrorist attacked a peaceful community murdered, raped and kidnapped innocent people in mass. That can never happen again. But innocent lives in Gaza must be protected. 

Civilians in the West Bank, as you all here know, are also suffering greatly because of this war. I heard from Palestinians here in Ramallah, about how extremist settlers have destroyed community sites and forced people from their homes, and have also heard again in significant detail about how the access and movement restrictions imposed by Israel have made it impossible for goods to move, and in many instances have ground economic activity to a halt. In my meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, we discussed U.S. efforts to hold the perpetrators of settler violence accountable, and to work together to improve economic conditions, as the PA also undertakes essential reform. This builds on USAID's long standing work on boosting economic growth in the West Bank. Indeed, under the Biden administration alone, USAID has provided more than $530 million dollars to support the Palestinian people. 

The United States wants to see this conflict end as quickly as possible and right now my colleagues are working around the clock to secure an extended ceasefire. This would allow for the surge of humanitarian assistance, it would allow for the secure return of the remaining hostages kidnapped by Hamas to their families after months of unimaginable terror, and it would enable the communities to begin planting the seeds for a lasting and durable peace. Please know that the United States has been and remains a steadfast partner in pursuit of that vision. 

Thank you and I'm happy to take a few of your questions.

QUESTION: I think you answered about the first question – the question that what the message that you have for the Palestinian people? The second one, will USAID fund projects in Gaza and West Bank, because there is a very big damage, actually, in West Bank as well in Gaza. And what will be the mechanism used for that?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you for the question. USAID has 15 projects that were underway in Gaza before this war began. And they range from spurring job creation to education programs. Our State Department colleagues, of course, for years have funded UNRWA and the education and health services there as well. You know, right now, our emphasis with people being displaced from their homes – 80 percent of the population of Gaza displaced – the things we were doing before October 7, of course, amid all of the destruction, and displacement, and conflict, those programs are not happening right now. But having those mechanisms to work in the health sector, to work on things that now seem like a long way away, but SMEs and job creation, all those mechanisms exist. And as soon as the opportunity exists to take advantage of those programs, and to hopefully work with other donors to scale them, we will leap at those opportunities. But USAID has the privilege of doing both development work of the kind we were doing before October 7, and humanitarian emergency work, which is what we are most focused on now. 

But our commitment is an enduring commitment. As soon as the occasion exists, also to extend the kinds of ties between Palestinians and Israelis that have frayed a lot in recent days – we are continuing to support those conversations. Now that movement is so restricted, many of the conversations are happening over Zoom. I met with people who do everything from, bring trauma surgeons from – Palestinian trauma surgeons together with Israeli trauma surgeons, they're still on WhatsApp, comparing notes about how to deal with certain cases. There's still an effort to continue the sports programs that bring people from both sides. Again, I know it feels like these are such small initiatives next to the backdrop of mistrust and fear that exists in so many quarters but those programs are ongoing now. And we will continue to support them through the MEPPA initiative. 

But we know that the economic damage with the loss of permits for Palestinian workers, with the movement and access restrictions, with the drop in tourism, with settler violence, and there's the effects on – I heard today about the olive groves and the severe drop in olive growth production and harvesting because of settler violence. These economic effects are going to be felt for a very long time and USAID views it as a very important priority, and President Biden views it as a key priority, not only ourselves to look at what we can do, but to frame the entire international community into that conversation as soon as possible. 

And again, with President Abbas today, we began to discuss programmatically what some of that would look like. We have the relationships, they've been built out over two decades. And what we need to do is tailor programs that looked differently five or six months ago for the gravity of the economic crisis in the West Bank that exists right now. and the gravity of the broader crisis of needing to rebuild entire cities, and communities, and livelihoods in Gaza.

QUESTION: Why did the United States decide to send the humanitarian aid to WFP, and other non-governmental organizations, and not to the UNRWA? Why is the UNRWA the only organization which has the database for the Gaza refugees, the Palestinian people there. Palestinians feel that the United States lead the kind of – excuse me, for this – a systematic, mass destruction against the UNRWA, and what's beyond is the identity of the Palestinian refugee. How do you respond? Thank you.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you, sir. The United States, as I've described, is laser focused on the humanitarian catastrophe. We, as you heard, expressed our very serious concern with the allegations that were made against a number of UNRWA staff. We have engaged the Secretary General and are appreciative, and welcome the investigation that is underway. And we have said from the beginning, that the vast majority of UNRWA workers in Gaza have been educating Palestinians, Gazans – so many people that one meets from Gaza at an American University were educated by UNRWA at some point in recent years. 

We recognize that when this war began, many, many UNRWA workers have risked their lives to be out there doing distributions. And using the distribution network that existed, so that other partners like World Food Program, like UNICEF, like NGOs who don't have the staff on the ground in the numbers that are needed, can rely on that distribution network. So right now, US aid operations are continuing. The UNRWA workers who have been doing humanitarian aid distribution are performing that role, often in circumstances that are incredibly perilous for them, but such is their commitment to their neighbors and family members. And we recognize that there is no substitute for the work that has been going on right now. 

And as USAID seeks to significantly increase our assistance over time, we also recognize that the partners that we have on the ground, do not have the infrastructure needed to be able to do the delivery and the distribution. So our focus is on meeting humanitarian needs, and whether that funding goes – whether UNRWA directly receives U.S. funding or not, that is going to continue to be our focus is making sure that those needs are met. 

QUESTION: My question was regarding rebuilding Gaza. Maybe you've talked a little bit about your role in rebuilding Gaza maybe later in different ways, but my question is, will you have a role in pushing Israel to taking its responsibility regarding Gaza? And if I may have another question regarding the West Bank, also. Since your fund and aid is limited to NGOs at the current time, but we still have – or we have maybe promises since Biden, the presidency, there have been lots of promises that the fund will be again through the PA, but will we see this again, especially when it comes to rebuilding streets in the West Bank, and maybe just like the north in the West Bank, Tulkarem and many areas which has been destroyed by the Israelis? Thank you.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: So, as you well know, and as your question implies, there are legal restrictions on the U.S. ability to fund the Palestinian Authority and administration. You know, I think there is, it is very important that progress be made on the prisoner payments issue, in order for us to be able to change our approach because of these legal restrictions, and because, again, it is very, very problematic to have a prisoner payment system, or to reward people who have killed civilians. But, we recognize that as part of the kind of economic recovery that is needed, and I talked to President Abbas about this today, the technocratic government, a set of fiscal reforms, and other reforms, are going to be absolutely vital alongside investments and kind of catalytic support that U.S. agencies like USAID can provide. So that is a big part of our engagement. 

And we know that that in turn is also going to be very, very important when one thinks about the future of the Palestinian people more broadly, and the aspiration to create – for a single Palestinian state to be created as part of a two state solution. So I think through our diplomatic engagement, we're very focused on that. We are – we think we have found ways to work catalytically, as you say, not only through NGOs, but also through the private sector. You know, we do work with the Jerusalem Hospital Network,  there's some flexibility there. But progress on the prisoner payment issue is going to be fundamental for the kind of government to government assistance that used to occur, as you say, in the past. 

On reconstruction ,I just would say that every country is going to have to play a role, you know, in what is going to need to be one of the most ambitious, extensive reconstruction efforts that we will have been involved in anywhere in the world, in terms of the concentration of destruction. I mean, I talked yesterday, as well, to Israeli military officials about the risks of unexploded ordnances. Now there's the buildings and the extent of the damage, and we see estimates in some cities of upwards of 60 percent of buildings being damaged or destroyed. Sometimes we see even higher estimates – we're not on the ground, we can't vouch for these estimates, but the damage is obviously extensive. 

Every Palestinian one meets, or I feel like almost every Palestinian I have met since coming on this trip just over the last few days, has described either losing their own home or having a close relative, if they have relatives in Gaza, who has lost their home. So it just gives a sense of the scale of destruction and the scale of rebuilding that is going to be needed. And, this issue of unexploded ordnance and creating safe conditions for people to move, even into communities where neighborhoods maybe where the houses are still intact, there is still a risk that they're intact just because something hasn't exploded, not because there isn't a risk. 

And so that is again, a precursor to even beginning to think about what the actual physical rebuilding will look like. But we have teams in Washington who are already trying to get ahead of thinking about what the convenings would look like, what some of those needs would begin to be, but it's very preliminary because the vast the majority of focus is on the here and now, and the life and death, dire circumstances that are afflicting Palestinian civilians in Gaza. 

Thank you, and thank you for being here. 


Administrator Power Travels to the Middle East - February 2024


Administrator Samantha Power is traveling to the Middle East to address the urgent humanitarian crisis in Gaza and advance the U.S. commitment to long term stability in the region.

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