Israel agrees to fuel for Gaza after US warned of humanitarian catastrophe
The UN said Saturday that it had received the first fuel in Gaza in days, but said it was half the quantity that Gaza needs for essential services like water desalination and food aid delivery.
The United Nations said Saturday that it had received the first fuel in Gaza in days, but said it was half the quantity that Gaza needs for essential services like water desalination, sewage pumps, and for delivering humanitarian aid.
“This is far from enough to cover the needs for desalination plants, sewage pumps, hospitals, water pumps in shelters, aid trucks, ambulances, bakeries and communications networks to work without interruption,” UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini said in a statement Saturday (Nov. 18). “Fuel should not be restricted for these activities.”
A day after the UN said it could no longer deliver aid in Gaza because it had run out of fuel and American officials warned Israeli counterparts that Gaza was on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, Israel said Friday that its war cabinet had voted to approve the delivery of fuel to the territory.
“Yesterday, in the early morning hours, the War Cabinet agreed to a special request by the United States to provide two tankers [of fuel] a day for the sewage system in the Gaza Strip, which is on the verge of collapse,” Israel’s National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi said in a press conference Friday (Nov. 17).
“The decision was that we want to prevent the spread of diseases,” Hanegbi continued, explaining that, if the Gaza sewage system collapses, it could cause an epidemic that leads to an international outcry and further pressure for a ceasefire.
The Israeli decision to approve the fuel delivery came after Secretary of State Antony Blinken phoned Ron Dermer, the long-time advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on Wednesday night, and Benny Gantz, the former Israeli Defense Minister and opposition politician serving in the unity war cabinet, on Thursday.
Blinken, in the calls, made very clear that from the United States standpoint, there was no more time to wait. They had to take this decision now, or there was going to be a humanitarian catastrophe, and risk of total social breakdown, the State Department official said.
The Israeli war cabinet voted to allow 140,000 liters of fuel to be delivered to the Gaza strip every 48 hours, a State Department official, speaking not for attribution, said Friday. The majority of that—120,000 liters--is to go to the UN for aid deliveries, water desalination, sewage pumping and other essential services. The other 20,000 liters is to be allocated for the generators to keep Palestinian telecommunications running, the State Department official said.
Gaza telecommunications were starting to work again on Saturday after the Palestinian telecommunications company had received a small amount of fuel, NPR reported Saturday, saying it had been able to reach one of its producers in Gaza.
Israel and the United States had agreed two weeks ago on a framework for fuel to be delivered to Gaza, but Israel had been dragging out actually making the decision, the U.S. official described. It was his understanding that Israel was waiting for two things: to see when Gaza’s fuel supply would actually run out, as well as using the withholding of the fuel as leverage in negotiations for the release of some of the over 200 hostages held by Hamas.
Blinken’s message to Israeli officials was you cannot wait for a resolution of the hostage issue, which may or may not come, but even if it comes in a week, that’s too long to wait, the US official described.
The recently appointed US Special Envoy for Middle East Humanitarian Issues David Satterfield told journalists in a call last week that the UN would need to replenish its supply of fuel in Gaza in the near future, and the U.S. was working to “ensure that replenishment occurs in a secure and timely fashion.”
Israeli National Security Advisor Hanegbi, on the issue of hostages, said today: “For many long weeks, we withstood heavy international pressure to declare a ceasefire, to have humanitarian pauses, and all without the release of the hostages.”
“The central rule is: when we know that the hostages can be freed, and not in a manipulative way or for Hamas's PR purposes, but rather a massive release of our hostages — only then will we agree to a ceasefire,” Hanegbi said. “And even then, it will be very short, because when it is over, we will continue to meet the goals of the war, one of which, as I said, is the continued campaign to free the hostages.”
The UN humanitarian office’s daily update for the situation in Gaza on Friday was grim verging on apocalyptic, particularly on how the lack of fuel and electricity was impeding sanitation and the supply of clean drinking water, and leading to the spread of disease:
“On 16 November, as of 18:00, for the second consecutive day, no trucks entered Gaza from Egypt. This is due to UNRWA’s inability to receive and distribute additional loads, because of its lack of fuel,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Nov. 17 daily flash update wrote. “UNRWA also announced that, due to the communication shutdown, it will be unable to manage or coordinate humanitarian aid convoys starting 17 November.”
“Due to the absence of fuel, on 16 November, UNRWA stated that 70 per cent of the people in the south have no access to clean water. Furthermore, raw sewage started flowing in the streets in some areas.”
Media reports Friday said the Israeli Defense Forces had recovered the bodies of two hostages who had been kidnapped by Hamas who had died, including that of an 86 year old man. The IDF said Thursday that they had found the body of Yehudit Weiss, a 65 year old woman kidnapped by Hamas last month, on a structure adjacent to Gaza’s Al-Shifa hospital.
US President Biden on Wednesday said he was mildly hopeful about the prospects for a deal to free the hostages. He spoke today for the second time this week with Qatar’s emir. Qatar is playing a central role in the effort to mediate a hostage deal.
“Look, I have been deeply involved in moving on the hostage negotiation,” Biden said at a press conference Nov. 15 following his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Woodside, California. “We’ve gotten great cooperation from the Qataris. I’ve spoken with them as well a number of times. I think the pause…that the Israelis have agreed to…I’m getting into too much detail….But I am mildly hopeful.”
“I can’t tell you how long it’s going to last,” Biden said. “But I can tell you I don’t think it ultimately ends until there’s a two-state solution. I made it clear to the Israelis I think it’s a big mistake….for them to think they’re going to occupy Gaza and maintain Gaza. I don’t think that works. And so…I think you’re going to see efforts to bring along…Arab countries and others about what the next steps are.”
But Jordan’s Foreign Minister, speaking to a conference in Bahrain Saturday, said the United States and Israel should not expect Arab troops to be involved in trying to clean up what he called Israel’s mess in Gaza.
“There will be no Arab troops going to Gaza — none,” Jordanan Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said at the Manama conference, the New York Times reported. “We are not going to be seen as the enemy.”
“People are being killed day in and day out, and then we’re supposed to come and clean the mess after Israel?” Safadi said. “That’s not going to happen.”
US National Security Council Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk, speaking at the same forum, said the United States was working to double the amount of aid getting into Gaza.
“We are working to significantly increase humanitarian assistance to Gazans,” McGurk told the conference in Manama. “There are now approximately 100 trucks per day entering Gaza loaded with assistance, but this is not enough. We aim to double this amount as soon as possible, and then see it grow exponentially from there.”
His point was that a deal to free the hostages, if reached, would be accompanied by a significant pause in the fighting, that would allow a further surge in aid.
“Such a release of a large number of hostages would result in a significant pause in fighting, and a massive surge of humanitarian relief, hundreds and hundreds of trucks, on a sustained basis entering Gaza from Egypt,” he said, according to his prepared remarks.
“This is the pathway to a pause in the fighting. The release of hostages. It’s also reasonable. To pause the fighting, release the hostages, the women, the children, the toddlers, the babies. The onus here is on Hamas.”
Updated 11/18 09:00: Updated Saturday with the UN reporting it had received fuel in Gaza and the Jordanian Foreign Minister’s and Brett McGurk comments in Manama.
Updated 11/18 17:00 with additional McGurk quote.
Diplomatic, by Laura Rozen is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.