Background Press Call on Humanitarian Aid for Gaza Ahead of the State of the Union

Background Press Call on Humanitarian Aid for Gaza Ahead of the State of the Union

National Security Council

Via Teleconference

11:11 A.M. EST
MODERATOR:  Good morning, everyone.  Thanks so much for joining today’s call to discuss humanitarian aid for Gaza ahead of the State of the Union. 
As a reminder, this call is on background, attributable to senior administration officials, and it is embargoed until noon Eastern today. 
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 our speakers for a few words at the top, and then we’ll go ahead to take your questions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  This is senior official number one.
Just very briefly, on — the President obviously will address, I think in a very personal way, the situation in the Middle East, which he’s been dealing with really almost 24/7 here since October 7th.  He’ll talk about the horrific attacks of October 7th and Israel’s right to go after Hamas and those responsible, but also Israel’s added burden, just given that Hamas hides and operates amongst the civilian population — Israel’s fundamental responsibility to protect innocent civilians in Gaza and also to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
So one of the announcements tonight in the speech will be — and this builds on a number of things.  You heard us talk last week about flooding the zone into Gaza, about making sure the crossings in the south are actually operational.  David Satterfield talked about this last week, about the distribution network and security challenges in the south.  We’ve been working with the Israelis to open a new crossing directly into north Gaza.  The U.N. confirmed today they’re working, hopefully over the coming days, for a pilot transport through that new crossing.  We began the airdrops; we had another one today, which we can talk about a little bit on this call. 
And importantly, tonight in the speech, the President will announce that he’s directing the U.S. military to lead an emergency mission to establish a port in the Mediterranean, on the Gaza coast, that can receive large ships carrying food, water, medicine, and temporary shelters.  And this is an initiative that will get underway here when the President makes the announcement and issues the orders.  And we wanted to preview it on the call and address any questions you might have. 
So, with that, I’ll turn it over to senior official number two. 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks very much.  Just to go back to a little bit of the history of President Biden’s involvement on the humanitarian access and delivery aspect of the conflict in Gaza: You know, really since the beginning of the conflict, President Biden has been leading efforts to get lifesaving humanitarian aid into Gaza to alleviate the suffering of innocent Palestinians who have nothing to do with Hamas.
And early on, President Biden pushed relentlessly and made significant progress in terms of humanitarian access in Gaza, engaging personally to get agreement from the leaders of Israel and Egypt to cooperate on the provision of humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza. 
Before the President’s engagement in this area, there was no food, water, or medicine getting into Gaza.  And the President’s visit to Israel and his hands-on diplomacy with the leaders of Israel and Egypt secured the opening of the Rafah crossing with Egypt. 
In December, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan traveled to Israel and secured the opening of the Kerem Shalom crossing, which has allowed additional aid to enter Gaza from southern Israel. 
And the United States, as I think is known well, is the largest provider of aid to the Gaza response, and thus far we have provided more than $180 million in assistance since October 7th. 
Responding to the humanitarian crisis and the needs of the Palestinian people has been a priority since day one, and it remains one today.  But the truth is, we know that the aid flowing into Gaza is nowhere near enough and nowhere near fast enough.  The President will make clear again this evening that we all need to do more and that the United States is doing more, and we are seeking to use every channel possible to get additional assistance into Gaza. 
We continue to work to increase the amount of aid flowing through existing border crossings at Rafah and Kerem Shalom.  And over recent days, at our request, the government of Israel has prepared a new land crossing directly into northern Gaza.  This third crossing will allow for aid to flow directly to the population in northern Gaza that is in dire need of assistance. 
As the U.N. confirmed today, we expect the first delivery to transit this crossing over the coming week, starting with a pilot and then ramping up. 
The government of Israel is also increasing the capacity of the direct land route from Jordan to Kerem Shalom, a route that has thus far seen around 48 trucks per week.  We should soon see 50 or more trucks per day going across. 
But we’re not waiting on the Israelis.  This is a moment for American leadership, and we are building a coalition of countries to address this urgent need. 
Last week, President Biden announced that we would carry out airdrops of aid into Gaza.  Since then, the Department of Defense has carried out three airdrops that include 192 bundles containing 112,896 meals, which include this morning’s airdrop operations that occurred in northern Gaza.  And we have more airdrops planned for the coming days. 
Additionally, we continue to coordinate with international partners, including Jordan, Egypt, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium.  This morning, their airdrops added a cumulative total of 28,000 meals on top of CENTCOM’s airdrops to Gaza.  Importantly, this is part of a sustained effort.  More aid is coming. 
And as the President previewed last week, the United States is taking the lead in activating a maritime corridor to allow assistance to flow by sea directly into Gaza as part of our sustained effort to increase aid flows coming into Gaza by land, air, and sea. 
So, tonight, the President will announce in his State of the Union Address that he has directed the U.S. military to undertake an emergency mission to establish a port in Gaza, working in partnership with likeminded countries and humanitarian partners. 
This port, the main feature of which is a temporary pier, will provide the capacity for hundreds of additional truckloads of assistance each day.  We will coordinate with the Israelis on the security requirements on land, and work with the U.N. and humanitarian NGOs on the distribution of assistance within Gaza.  Initial shipments will come via Cyprus, enabled by the U.S. military and a coalition of partners and allies. 
This new significant capability will take a number of weeks to plan and execute.  The forces that will be required to complete this mission are either already in the region or will begin to move there soon. 
We look forward to working with our close partners and allies in Europe, the Middle East, and beyond to build a coalition of countries that will contribute capabilities and funding for this initiative. 
This effort builds on the Amalthea initiative proposed by Cyprus, which provides a platform at the port of Larnaca for the transloading of assistance and screening by Israeli officials of Gaza-bound goods. 
While our military will lead this effort in the first instance, we look forward to the port transitioning to a commercially operated facility over time. 
Now, to conclude, I just wanted to say that to really address the urgent needs of the civilian population in Gaza and to enable humanitarian partners to safely distribute lifesaving aid throughout Gaza at the scale that is needed, it is essential that we see a temporary ceasefire in Gaza. 
The path to a ceasefire is straightforward.  There could be at least a six-week ceasefire today if Hamas would agree to release a defined category of vulnerable hostages, including women, elderly, sick, and the wounded.  That deal is on the table now and has been for more than the past week. 
It would bring immediate relief to the people of Gaza.  It would also create the conditions needed to enable the urgent humanitarian work that must be done.  The onus right now is on Hamas. 
And with that, I’ll turn to the next speaker.
MODERATOR:  Thank you.  I think we’re now ready for questions.  If you’d like to ask a question, please use the “Raise Your Hand” feature, and our senior administration officials and senior Defense official will answer your questions. 
Let’s get started with Aamer Madhani.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q    Hi there.  So will this require American boots on the ground on the Gaza coast?
And then secondly, I think speaker number two said weeks for preparation.  If you could provide any more — I guess more precise detail on if you have sort of a benchmark date for this port to be up and open. 
And then thirdly, if you guys can also just — you know, there’s been — does the White House see it as a problem, one that it has to fly past its closest ally and now build a port?  I think Robert Ford, the longtime diplomat, called it an “absurdity” that the U.S. military has to deliver aid into a territory controlled by an ally. 
Can you guys also just speak to this dynamic that’s established and what it says and how it complicates the administration’s case of continuing robust assistance for Israel?  Thank you.
On the last point, I will just say that we have and will continue to press Israel to allow more aid into Gaza by land.  We believe that land routes — we have long believed that land routes can be the most efficient, cost-effective way to get assistance in. 
But we have decided that we — and the President has directed that we look at all options, that we not wait for the Israelis, and that we are pursuing every channel possible to get assistance into Gaza.  So we will do it by air, by sea, by land — however we can get the maximum amount in possible.
I don’t want to get ahead of the planning in terms of this operation.  You know, and I’m sure we’ll have further details to share with our DOD colleagues soon.  But we are not planning for this to be an operation that would require U.S. boots on the ground.  But issues in terms of the dates, the timelines, et cetera, those are all things that we’re working through because they require contributions from our partners, from the humanitarian community and others, to make sure that this entire pipeline works effectively.
MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question will go to the line of Karen DeYoung.  You should be able to unmute yourself. 
Q    Hi.  In terms of the hostage negotiations, you’ve said a number of times that the ball is in Hamas’s court.  Hamas has put out statements over the past couple of days, saying it still wants a commitment for the initial repositioning of Israeli forces and a commitment for a phase two complete withdrawal of Israeli forces, and that it wants to ensure that all Gazans who want to move north can go back there. 
Can you tell us if those are demands that are still being negotiated?  Are they part of what’s been put on the table, or are they just rejected?  Is this the Israeli framework that you said is forward leaning?  Is this a “take it or leave it” offer?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Hi, Karen.  I can address that. 
So, first of all, it is a three-phase deal — that’s the concept of the deal — with the first phase being a six-week ceasefire, which we’ve discussed.  I don’t want to discuss all the elements, but those elements have been under discussion.  And there are arrangements — as we had even during the ceasefire deal in November that led to 105 hostages coming out over seven days, repositioning of Israeli forces during that period, arrangements for movement — all of that stuff has been negotiated. 
And even returning people to the north, that is something that has been worked on in some detail.  Now, to get people to the north — it gets to one of the purposes of this call — you have to have reliable humanitarian assistance in the north.  And you kind of have to flood the area, because one thing that’s happening is even as gates are open, the distribution network inside Gaza, given the security situation and given the desperation — which led to the event that was terrible, tragic, awful event we saw last week — you have to just get in more assistance. 
So, yes, we’re returning people to the north; that is part of the arrangement.  This has been worked out.  So there’s a lot of people who speak for Hamas, purport to speak for Hamas.  But the fundamental element on their side is releasing, again, the sick, the wounded, the elderly, and the women.  That is, right now, really the holdup. 
But I will say there have been talks all week in Cairo.  We are directly engaged in this.  We just had a full briefing on it and assessment of where we are, just about half hour ago.  And we are continuing to work this assiduously.  And that is not going to stop, because we see this as the path to get the hostages home. 
I’ll say, of course, tonight the President will speak to the plight of the hostages, the fact that we had a deal that got a number of hostages out.  There will be a number of hostage families, we know, in the gallery. 
Jake and I met with the hostage families here at the White House yesterday.  This is something we are working on constantly, not just to save the lives of the hostages and get them out, but also because this is a path to a ceasefire, a ceasefire that will last at least six weeks.  It can be extended into a second phase; that has been worked out.  And a ceasefire would enable the distribution of the aid inside Gaza, which is so essential.  And so, it would really facilitate and enable the humanitarian surge that we’re working on. 
So that is why the ceasefire is first and foremost on our mind, on the President’s mind.  He’ll obviously speak to that tonight. 
But everything we’re doing here, including with this new U.S.-led military mission, is important for setting the conditions throughout Gaza for people to ultimately return to their places of residence.
MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question will go to the line of Michael Shear.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q    Hey there.  Thanks, guys.  I was just wondering, a couple of questions.  One, Kirby said yesterday that one of the problems with a, kind of, marine option or a water option is that you still have to truck the materials in after you drop them off at the port.  Is it clear that once the aid gets dropped off at the port, that there’s a path in, either to the north or the south in Gaza?
And secondly, just to follow up on the U.S. boots on the ground, I think there was some talk about this a while back, and the Army Corps of Engineers had said that it was going to take 2,000 troops to deploy something like this.  Has that been changed?  Is that no longer believed?  Or is perhaps the troops not going to be U.S. troops, but there will have to be troops from somewhere else?
And is Israel part of — has Israel agreed to all of this? In other words, I know this — you’re saying you’re acting without, you know, waiting for Israel, but has Israel given the go-ahead?  Do they have to give the go-ahead for you guys to do this?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So, just on your last question — [senior administration official], did you want to say something?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  No, [senior administration official], go ahead.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Just on your last question first, you know, I think important to state that we worked very closely with the Israelis in developing this initiative, and they have worked very closely with the Cypriots now for months to establish the mechanism in Larnaca port that will be essential.  And we will work closely and sort out the details with them in terms of some of the security questions you raised. 
But we won’t get ahead of DOD in terms of any planning assumptions in terms of number of personnel that will ultimately be involved.  But like I mentioned, this is foreseen to be an operation that won’t require U.S. boots on the ground. 
To your other question about distribution within Gaza, I mean, yes, the assistance will need to land and then be distributed further within Gaza to reach those in need.  And, you know, there, we’re going to be, again, working with the U.N., working with other humanitarian partners to devise a mechanism for distributing the assistance. 
I think one of the reasons why this development is so key is that we’re building a redundant system so that we aren’t relying on one or two crossings as single points of failure in terms of being able to get assistance in. 
So it certainly will be complex to work out, but I think the more avenues we have to get assistance in, the more we will be able to reliably move it around within Gaza as well.
MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Our last question will go to the line of Asma Khalid.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q    Hi.  Thanks for doing this.  I just want to ask for, kind of, an update on the hostage negotiations.  I realize [senior administration official] can’t share probably too much on that front, but I wanted to get an assessment from you of how optimistic you are about reaching an agreement before Ramadan.
And relatedly, can you help expound on why there is this urgency to reach the deadline before Monday?  I know the President alluded the other day to possible danger in Jerusalem.  I wanted to get clarity on that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So, I’m not going to make predictions.  This is a difficult negotiation.  Any negotiation in its latter stages can become extremely hard. 
But, look, Haniyeh, leader of Hamas, has called for violence over Ramadan, so we recognize that this is something that they might very well try to do.  And it’s always a volatile period. 
But, you know, there is no hard and fast, like, deadline on this negotiation.  This negotiation is the path to getting hostages home and getting a ceasefire in place in Gaza and bringing relief immediately to the people of Gaza.  That is a fundamental objective of ours, and we are working to get it done as soon as possible.  We’d like that that been done yesterday.  We think the path is there.  We’re working on it. 
We are discussing with the Egyptians here just later this morning on some of the state of the talks, and we’re going to do everything we can.  But I’m not going to make a prediction on it.  But obviously, we recognize that extremists could try to use Ramadan to spark something.  That would be deeply unfortunate in that holy month.  And we want to make sure that we have a peaceful period so people can worship.  And obviously, we’re working that through with the Israelis, with the Palestinian Authority, with Jordanians and others. 
But, you know, we fully recognize, and I think Hamas has said, what their intentions might be. 
At the same time, we have worked out a deal that would bring massive relief to the people of Gaza and a ceasefire.  And the terms of it are pretty clear. 
So we’re going to continue to be at this, and we will try to get it done as soon as we can.  But I’m not going to make a prediction.  These are probably the most difficult types of negotiations imaginable.  And nothing is ever done until it’s actually done.
MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Our last question will go to the line of Alex Ward.  You should be able to unmute yourself. 
Q    Yeah, hi.  Thanks for doing this.  Just, if you could help me; I’m a little confused.  How is this — you know, the President ordering this military mission if we’re not going to have boots on the ground to build this pier?  Is it just that — I mean, who’s building the pier?  And then, is it just that our military assets will be delivering aid from Cyprus to Gaza? Like, just explain what the actual order is here for our troops.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I can say one thing, and then [senior administration official] and maybe our DOD colleague.
So, look, one thing.  The U.S. military has unique capabilities.  So as we have been looking at this situation, and working with partners and allies and working on commercial options, the U.S. military has unique capabilities, and they can do things from just offshore that is extraordinary.  And so that is the concept of operations that the President has been briefed on, that he is going to authorize.  And then we will work here over the coming days to get this underway. 
But I don’t know if [senior administration official] or our DOD colleague might want to add.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I’m happy to leave it there.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yeah, I can just chime in and say that the concept that’s been planned involves the presence of U.S. military personnel on military vessels offshore but does not require U.S. military personnel to go ashore to install the pier or causeway facility that will allow the transportation of humanitarian assistance ashore.
MODERATOR:  Thanks, everyone.  That’s all the time we have for today.  As a reminder, this call was on background, attributable to senior administration officials and a senior Defense official, and it is embargoed until noon Eastern today.
Thanks so much.
11:34 A.M. EST     

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