Refugees International welcomes the appointment of Ambassador David Satterfield as U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Humanitarian Issues. The breadth and scope of his regional expertise will benefit humanitarian diplomacy efforts at this critical time. Israel’s military offensive in Gaza following the massacre of civilians by Hamas is already creating devastating humanitarian impacts, including war crimes, and a looming ground invasion would produce a humanitarian cataclysm. Preventing such an outcome is of the utmost importance.
As Ambassador Satterfield takes up his role, we urge that he prioritize:
- Negotiating humanitarian pauses: The United States should negotiate regular humanitarian pauses as rapidly as feasible. After more than a week of sustained bombardment, there is an urgent need to surge aid and humanitarian personnel into Gaza as well as to evacuate emergency medical cases. We also emphasize that conditions will worsen dramatically the longer the conflict drags on, and we urge all diplomatic partners to take immediate, tangible steps to de-escalate the worsening violence and work rapidly toward a politically sustainable ceasefire.
- Upholding international humanitarian law, particularly prohibitions on collective punishment: The collective punishment tactics employed by Israel over the past week have been the single largest driver of humanitarian need in Gaza. These tactics have included withholding water, power, fuel, and food from the territory; targeting clean water infrastructure with airstrikes; and extensive destruction of civilian residential infrastructure. In addition, airstrikes have damaged numerous schools and medical facilities. These acts are illegal under international law, violating both the prohibition on collective punishment and the requirement to distinguish between civilian and military targets. If these unlawful tactics continue, no amount of aid will be sufficient to offset the need they create. Ensuring Israel adheres to its obligations under the laws of war – as the President emphasized to Prime Minister Netanyahu – is the single most important step to improve humanitarian conditions in Gaza.
- Facilitating the flow of aid: Both Israel and Hamas have engaged in obstruction of the aid effort. The United States should use its leverage with the Israeli government to reopen channels for the flow of aid to credible humanitarian organizations in Gaza. Simultaneously, Qatar and other actors that engage with Hamas should urge it not to interfere with or divert aid distribution. The most reliable way to protect against aid diversion within the territory is to preserve the sustained operational presence of credible humanitarian organizations. All parties must abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law not to interfere with or arbitrarily obstruct the provision of lifesaving humanitarian aid.
- Protection of humanitarian personnel and sites: Numerous UN and other humanitarian facilities have been struck or damaged by Israeli airstrikes, and Israel has ordered UN personnel to vacate facilities in the Gaza strip. These acts critically hamper the aid effort and increase the risk of aid diversion. The United States must reinforce that humanitarian personnel must not be targeted in Gaza, just as the United States advocates in places like Ukraine and Syria.
- Preventing additional displacement: Israel has directly called for the forcible transfer of 1.1 million Palestinians from northern Gaza ahead of an anticipated ground operation. The scale and nature of this forced displacement does not constitute a valid evacuation for civilian protection as articulated under international law, and the ICRC has characterized it as unlawful. While National Security Advisor Sullivan’s comments yesterday rightly affirmed that any Gazans displaced by the Israeli offensive should have the right to return to their homes, few Palestinians will have confidence in such a promise. U.S. diplomacy should, in line with international law, demand that Israeli military tactics not unduly cause – much less necessitate – mass population-level displacement. And the United States must implore Israel to allow in large-scale international humanitarian support to the newly displaced within Gaza. We also caution that establishment of “safe zones” in Gaza, which is reportedly under consideration, has a deeply mixed history in other crisis contexts and frequently leads to greater risk to civilians if those zones are not credibly secured by an impartial force.
Refugees International looks forward to working with Ambassador Satterfield in his new role.
For more information or to schedule an interview, please contact Refugees International Media and Communications Manager Etant Dupain at firstname.lastname@example.org.