Remarks by Under Secretary Uzra Zeya at a UN Security Council Ministerial Meeting on the Situation in the Middle East

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January 23, 2024

Monsieur le Président, thank you for convening us and Secretary-General Guterres, thank you for your briefing today.

In November, I visited El Arish and I saw the UN and humanitarian partners’ lifesaving work in action. Subsequent to that visit, the United States facilitated an extended humanitarian pause, during which hostages were reunited with their loved ones and more aid got into the hands of Palestinians in Gaza. Since then, Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, with U.S. encouragement and support, have also taken steps to expand the flow of assistance into Gaza — opening Kerem Shalom and establishing a new route from Jordan.

But more needs to be done to rapidly provide assistance at scale for civilians in all of Gaza.

We welcome the Secretary-General’s appointment of Sigrid Kaag as the new Senior Humanitarian and Reconstruction Coordinator, charged with this mission. She must have the resources and support she needs, because her success is the UN’s success in Gaza. The UN’s role is irreplaceable.

Secretary Blinken was pleased to have secured Israeli support for a UN assessment team to visit northern Gaza, including support for a surge in aid to civilians in the north who have largely lacked access to aid for more than a month and are increasingly desperate. We urge that visit to happen as soon as it is safe to do so as it is a critical step to assess the humanitarian situation and enable the ultimate voluntary, safe return home for those displaced by the fighting. The perilous security situation in Northern Gaza, driven by renewed Hamas rocketing of Israel and attacks, has delayed this assessment. We reiterate that there can be no forced relocation of Palestinians and that Palestinian civilians must be allowed to voluntarily and safely return home, with dignity, as soon as conditions allow.

Further, we reject calls for a relocation of Palestinians outside of Gaza and the dehumanizing language used by some officials on all sides of the conflict.

We continue to convey to Israeli leaders that they need to do more to protect civilians and take feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm, in line with international humanitarian law. Far too many Palestinian civilians have been injured or killed in Gaza since October 7. More needs to be done to protect them.

UN and other humanitarian personnel are demonstrating extraordinary courage and also require greater protection. Many are themselves displaced. We mourn the loss of more than 150 UNRWA staff, the largest collective loss of personnel in the UN’s history.

Continued incidents during the past week demonstrate deconfliction remains a serious problem. That must change.

The United States joins other Council members in reaffirming that humanitarian personnel must be protected so that they can save other lives. In addition, they require reliable access to telecommunications services in Gaza to do their job safely.

We also remain concerned by the current intense fighting around major hospitals in western Khan Younis. The protected nature of these facilities must be respected, so they can continue to provide civilians with medical assistance. Hamas and other terrorist groups must not use hospitals or other civilian infrastructure to launch attacks, and civilians must be permitted to reach hospitals.

Colleagues, we must not forget that Hamas’ brutal terrorist attacks on Israel unleashed this conflict. The eyewitness accounts of Hamas’ atrocities and conflict related sexual violence against innocent women are undisputed and horrific. Hamas’ continued abhorrent use of Palestinian civilians and hostages as human shields and its repeated statements affirming their intent to repeat the October 7 attacks, underscore why we can never go back to the pre-October 7 reality in Gaza.

There also can be no progress toward a durable peace without resolution of the hostage crisis. More than 100 individuals are still held in Gaza by Hamas and other armed groups, who continue to be kept from their loved ones and are denied access to humanitarian services.

For more than 100 days, hostages and their families have lived in agony. No one should have to endure even one day of what they have gone through, much less over 100.

It is time for this Council to unequivocally condemn Hamas’ atrocities and terror. To reiterate its demand that Hamas immediately release all the hostages and allow medical access. In this regard, we welcome Qatar and France’s announcement of an agreement to deliver medicine to hostages and medical facilities in Gaza.

Colleagues, the United States has repeatedly warned Iran and its proxies — not to engage in opportunistic attacks that risk instigating a wider conflict.

We condemn Iran’s attacks on locations in Iraq and Pakistan, which harmed and killed civilians. We also condemn the Houthis’ attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea, which Resolution 2722 rightly demanded must cease. We know that without Iran’s support, the Houthis would struggle to track and strike commercial vessels.

We seek a diplomatic solution along the Blue Line that would allow civilians in Israel and Lebanon to return home. We again call for full implementation of Resolution 1701.

And let me be clear: the United States will continue to take defensive actions, as appropriate and in line with international law, to protect our personnel and interests in the region.

We’re also deeply troubled by the situation in the West Bank, where forced displacement and unprecedented levels of violence by extremist settlers presents an urgent threat to peace and stability. We condemn killings of Palestinian civilians—and we urge Israel to prevent and investigate settler violence, as well as hold perpetrators accountable.

Colleagues, as we respond to the Gaza crisis, a key component of U.S. diplomacy is to pursue a pathway both to a Palestinian state and normalization and integration between Israel and other regional states, some of whom join us today for this open debate. The goal is a future where Gaza is never again used as a platform for terror, and a future where Palestinians have a state of their own, Israel’s security is assured, and Israelis and Arabs can live in peace.

Secretary Blinken recently heard from regional countries a willingness to participate in the reconstruction of Gaza, if there is a path to a Palestinian state. A stronger, reformed and revitalized Palestinian Authority that can more effectively deliver for its own people in both the West Bank and Gaza must also be part of the equation.

I know this may be difficult to imagine at this difficult moment. But it is President Biden’s firm conviction that two states, with Israel’s security guaranteed, are the only path to a durable peace, as well as the only guarantor of a secure and democratic Israel, the only guarantor of Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations to live in a state of their own, and the only way to end this violence once and for all.

To achieve this future, the Israeli and Palestinian people, as well as their, leaders must make hard choices. We do not purport to make these decisions for them. But we believe strongly that if they are willing to pursue these goals, they can help to usher in an era where Palestinians and Israelis can live side-by-side in peace.

And on a final point, we lament that Russia ignored several Council Member’s request to condemn Hamas for their attacks on October 7 in the draft Presidential Statement circulated late last week. It’s bewildering that this Council still cannot condemn Hamas for its heinous terrorist attack that killed over 1,200 individuals from over 30 nations in Israel on October 7. Or, that this Council cannot, without qualification, reiterate its call for the release of the more than 100 hostages held by Hamas and other terrorist groups. Colleagues, we and others offered input to this product in good-faith and our input is consistent with what we have advocated for since October 7. Russia’s choice to reject these edits only underscores its cynical approach to the work of this Council, as it chooses to try and divide the Council, rather than bring it together to address global challenges.

Thank you.

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