Remarks by John Kelley, Political Minister Counselor, at a UN Security Council Briefing on the Situation in the Middle East

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December 29, 2023

Thank you, Mr. President. And I would like to thank our three briefers for their helpful remarks this morning.

The United States shares the concern regarding the sharp increase in violence by extremist settlers in the West Bank, and the unprecedented number of Palestinian fatalities both there and in Gaza over the last three months.

Colleagues, we know 2023 has been the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank. As we have said repeatedly, the death of any civilian — whether they were one of the individuals killed by Hamas terrorists on October 7th in Israel, or one of the Palestinians killed in the West Bank or Gaza — is a tragedy. Period.

The United States continues to stress to the Israeli government the importance of preventing extremist settler violence as well as investigating and holding accountable those who commit acts of violence.

To that end, the United States will continue to implement visa restrictions as announced on December 5th, targeting individuals believed to have been involved in or meaningfully contributed to undermining peace, security, or stability in the West Bank. And we have already taken steps to impose visa restrictions on dozens of individuals under this policy.

These restrictions reinforce the United States’ long-held belief: advancing settlements in the West Bank undermines the prospects of a future Palestinian state and a two-state solution — as do any actions that undermine stability in the West Bank, including attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, and Palestinian attacks against Israelis. As President Biden has repeatedly said, those attacks are unacceptable.

Let us be clear: a two-state solution, where Israelis and Palestinians live side by side in peace, is the path to peace. That path to peace is not a smooth nor a fast one. And the ongoing construction of settlements and increase in violence in the West Bank makes this challenging journey even more difficult.

In addition, we also know the continued control of Gaza by Hamas, a group that has dedicated its entire existence to the elimination of Israel, precludes a pathway to a viable two-state solution, in which Israel’s security is guaranteed and the Palestinian people can fully realize their aspirations.

Colleagues, as we work toward a lasting peace, we must all continue to call out and condemn dehumanizing rhetoric, which persists at alarming levels on all sides.

There can be no justification for terrorism or attacks on civilians, and we condemn horrific Hamas’ glorification of violence. And yet, some members of this Council cannot bring themselves to condemn Hamas’ brutal terrorist attacks on October 7th. It’s outrageous, and beneath the dignity of this Council.

Moreover, it is striking that even as, again, we hear many countries urging the end to this conflict, which we would all like to see, we hear very few demands of Hamas to stop hiding behind civilians, lay down its arms and surrender. How can it be we hear so few demands directed at Hamas? We all need to press Hamas to do what’s necessary to end the conflict it set in motion.

Which brings me to the dire humanitarian situation facing the Palestinian people. Last week, in adopting a humanitarian-focused resolution, this Council spoke out about this crisis, and we made clear aid must be scaled up and humanitarian actors on the ground must be supported and protected. Now, we need to see these words realized on the ground. And for our part, the United States will continue to lead and work with regional partners, humanitarian organizations, and the UN to get aid into the hands of those in need.

To that end, we welcome the appointment of Sigrid Kaag, who will serve as the Senior Humanitarian and Reconstruction Coordinator for Gaza. She has the depth of experience and relationships in the region to hit the ground running. We look forward to coordinating closely with Ms. Kaag and the UN on efforts to accelerate and streamline the delivery of live-saving humanitarian relief to Palestinian civilians living in Gaza. We also expect, per her title, she will play an important role in coordinating reconstruction efforts in Gaza.

We continue to look to Israel to enable humanitarian actors’ distribution of assistance inside Gaza, including with a strong and responsive deconfliction and telecommunications mechanisms. Such steps should have a meaningful impact as we look to increase aid flows to Gaza.

Last week’s resolution also emphasized all parties must respect international humanitarian law. And, as we’ve made clear time and time again, this includes Israel, which should take additional actions to avoid civilian harm.

As Secretary Blinken noted last week, it is clear the conflict needs to move to a lower-intensity phase, and we would like to see a shift to more targeted operations with a smaller number of forces focused on dealing with the leadership of Hamas and the tunnel network. Such a shift should help reduce harm to civilians.

Of course, another important humanitarian dimension of the conflict is the hostage situation. Israel has been clear it would welcome returning to a pause and the further release of hostages. Hamas therefore remains a problem. They reneged on commitments they made during the first pause for hostage releases, and we question whether they are in fact willing to resume this effort. We remain engaged in efforts to secure another pause and once again get hostages moving out of Gaza.

Finally, the United States reiterates regional actors should not seek to widen this conflict. We join other members of the Security Council in condemning the Houthis’ attacks on commercial shipping vessels in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. We call for this Council to speak out and take action against these attacks without delay.

We are also concerned by the renewed violence along the border between Israel and Lebanon, and underscore to both governments the need to address the situation through diplomacy, rather than force.

And we continue to condemn Iran’s support for partner and proxy groups throughout the region.

Colleagues, we meet just two days before the New Year. And the past year, and especially the last few months, have been immensely difficult and painful – for Israelis and Palestinians first and foremost. But for all of us, who have watched devastating images of suffering pour out across our screens.

Our goal, in the year to come, must be to work toward a lasting peace and a two-state solution; so, the next generation, and the generations to come, need not experience the devastation of the last year and can finally live side-by-side in states of their own, with equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity and dignity.

And I thank you, Mr. President.

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