Remarks by Ambassador Robert Wood, Alternative Representative for Special Political Affairs, at a UN Security Council Briefing on the Situation in the Middle East

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December 8, 2023

Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, Secretary-General Guterres, for your briefing. For the past two months, this Council has been engaged in continuous meetings on the topics highlighted in your recent letter.

In parallel, and even as we have supported the right of another Member State to defend its people against heinous atrocities and acts of terrorism, the United States – at the highest levels – has undertaken intensive diplomacy to save lives and lay a foundation for a durable peace.

American diplomacy opened the way for the first trucks that flowed into Gaza with aid. In partnership with Qatar and Egypt, it helped reunite more than 100 hostages with their loved ones and dramatically expanded aid to civilians in Gaza, during a seven-day long humanitarian pause.

Hamas, however, has a different set of goals. Its refusal to release young women hostages led to a breakdown in the pause and resumption of the fighting.

This Council’s failure to condemn Hamas’ October 7th terrorist attacks – including its acts of sexual violence and other unthinkable evils – is a serious moral failure. And it underscores the fundamental disconnect between the discussions that we have been having in this Chamber and the realities on the ground.

An undeniable part of that reality is that if Israel unilaterally laid down its weapons today, as some Member States have called for, Hamas would continue to hold hostages. Women and children. Elderly men. Many of whom, according to survivor accounts, are being subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment.

And as of today, Hamas continues to pose a threat to Israel and remain in charge of Gaza. That is not a threat that any one of our governments would allow to continue to remain on our own borders. Not after the worst attack on our people in several decades.

For that reason, while the United States strongly supports a durable peace in which both Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace and security, we do not support calls for an immediate ceasefire. This would only plant the seeds for the next war – because Hamas has no desire to see a durable peace, to see a two-state solution.

Colleagues, I am pained by the suffering that we have witnessed over the last two months. Even when we as governments are compelled to take up arms and protect our people from the most heinous acts of terrorism and violence, war is tragic.

It is tragic for the families of the hostages, who await word on the fate of their loved ones. We are doing everything possible to free the remaining hostages and reiterate our expectation that the ICRC be permitted to access and provide medical treatment to the hostages held by Hamas and other extremist groups. The war is equally tragic for civilians in Gaza. The scale of civilian suffering is devastating and heartbreaking.

Hamas intentionally embeds itself within civilian areas. But that does not in any way change the fact that how Israel defends itself matters.

We have been unequivocal: Israel must respect international humanitarian law and conduct its operations in a way that minimizes civilian harm.

To back up these words and help protect civilians, we have supported establishing a more effective humanitarian deconfliction mechanism with the UN. And we are monitoring its implementation.

This is a moral imperative and strategic imperative. You can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians.

In every conversation, we also have underscored that Israel must avoid further mass displacement of civilians in the south of Gaza, many of whom previously fled violence.

Civilians must be provided adequate time and opportunity to move, including through corridors that allow people to move safely from defined areas of hostilities. Israel must further ensure sufficient humanitarian support exists for displaced individuals.

Finally, civilians displaced in Gaza must have an opportunity to return home as soon as conditions permit. There must be no enduring internal displacement or reduction in Gaza’s territory. Under no circumstances will the United States support the forced relocation of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank.

Although the extended humanitarian pause has ended – again, by Hamas’ choice – we have been clear that humanitarian aid must not only continue, it must be expanded.

We welcome the Israeli government’s decision to open Kerem Shalom for inspections and screening of humanitarian goods. We will continue to be in touch with Israel to ensure this happens, and on the timeline committed.

We also welcome the Israeli government’s decision to ensure the provision of fuel that meets requisite needs to sustain the humanitarian assistance operation, including vital civilian infrastructure.

Both of these outcomes are a result of intensive U.S. engagement with all parties and are consistent with Resolution 2712. They lay the foundation to expand sustained, desperately needed humanitarian aid.

Of course, humanitarian aid cannot be delivered if humanitarian workers are not protected. And all parties have an obligation to protect UN and humanitarian personnel. We offer our deepest condolences to all the families, friends, and colleagues of UNRWA staff who lost their lives since October 7.

Attacks against UN shelters and facilities are unacceptable. We have also continued that work journalists do in conflict settings is vital and they too must be protected.

Israel must avoid damage to civilian infrastructure like hospitals, power stations, water facilities, and telecommunications infrastructure.

Regarding the regional dimensions of this conflict, we are concerned by the renewed violence along the Blue Line. Restoring calm there is of utmost importance, as is fully implementing Security Council Resolution 1701.

Moreover, we condemn the recent attacks by Houthis against three separate commercial vessels operating in international waters on the southern Red Sea.

Consistent with Iran’s long-term support and encouragement of the Houthis’ destabilizing actions in the region, we know that Iran was engaged in planning Houthi operations.

Iran has the choice to provide or withhold this support, without which the Houthis would struggle to effectively track and strike commercial vessels navigating shipping lanes through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

We welcome the Council’s press statement condemning these attacks and underlining the importance of navigational rights and freedoms of all vessels in the Red Sea. We are engaged in intensive consultations with partners and allies to determine the appropriate next steps.

The United States has also been clear about the dangers from the rise in extremist violence committed by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank. Violent extremist settlers must be held accountable for violent acts. And so, the United States is implementing a new visa restriction policy targeting individuals believed to have been involved in or meaningfully contributed to undermining peace, security, or stability in the West Bank.

President Biden has been clear: the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own and a future free from Hamas. And a two-state solution is the only way to guarantee the long-term security of both the Israeli and the Palestinian people.

Members of this Council advocating for resolutions have an obligation to explain how their proposals will break the cycle of unceasing violence and support the steps we all agree are necessary to lay the foundation for a more peaceful and secure future – so that history does not keep repeating itself.

Our goal should not simply be to stop the war for today – it should be to end the war forever, break the cycle of unceasing violence, and build something stronger in Gaza and across the Middle East so that history does not keep repeating itself.

As has been the case since day one of this crisis, the United States will continue to use all its influence to encourage the reunification of hostages with their loved ones and the further expansion of aid to Palestinian civilians in Gaza who have suffered tremendous losses.

We will continue pressing for the protection of civilians as Israel pursues legitimate military objectives. And we will not give up on a future where Hamas does not control Gaza, which is untenable for Israel’s and the region’s security and the well-being of the Palestinian people.

Thank you, Mr. President.

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