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Israeli military operation in Rafah 'cannot proceed,' U.S. ambassador to the UN says

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks during a press conference at the United Nations headquarters.
Michael M. Santiago
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U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks during a press conference at the United Nations headquarters.

Updated February 11, 2024 at 1:44 PM ET

As Israel prepares to escalate its military campaign on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told NPR that Israel has an obligation to keep civilians safe, and that under current conditions, a planned military operation there "cannot proceed."

The flow of humanitarian assistance continues to lag far behind the needs of the nearly 1.5 million Palestinians who have taken shelter in Rafah.

On Sunday, President Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that "a military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there," according to a readout of the call between the two men provided by the White House.

Meanwhile, the primary agency delivering aid on the ground, UNRWA, continues to be embroiled in scandal.

On Saturday, the Israeli military said it found a network of Hamas tunnelsunder the agency's Gaza headquarters. The commissioner general of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, said the agency was unaware of what was underneath the building and that the allegations "merit an independent inquiry."

The beleaguered organization faces a crisis of funding, as top donor nations, including the United States, have moved to suspend their funding. This came in response to accusations leveled by Israelin late January that 12 UNRWA employees had direct involvement in the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, which killed some 1,200 people in Israel.

In an interview on Friday with NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, Thomas-Greenfield spoke about the U.S. position on Israel's plans to ramp up military operations in Rafah, and the efforts to ensure humanitarian aid continues to reach civilians on the ground.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity and includes extended web-only questions and answers.


Interview Highlights

Michele Kelemen: Israel seems to be turning its attention to the south, to Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are sheltered and they're already displaced by the fighting. Is the U.S. laying out any red lines for the Israelis on that? Because I know you've heard a lot of concern at the U.N. about that situation.

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield: Look, we have been absolutely clear that under the current circumstances in Rafah, a military operation now in that area cannot proceed. And that would dramatically exacerbate the humanitarian emergency that we're all seeking to alleviate right now. Israel has an obligation to ensure that civilians, that their civilian population is safe and that they're secure and that they have access to humanitarian aid and to basic services. And I think you heard the secretary, [Antony Blinken,] make those statements clearly during his meetings and in his engagements with the press when he was there.

Israeli soldiers inside an evacuated compound of the UNRWA in Gaza City, amid ongoing fighting between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. This photo was taken during a controlled tour by the Israeli army on Feb. 8 and subsequently edited under the supervision of the Israeli military.
Jack Guez / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Israeli soldiers inside an evacuated compound of the UNRWA in Gaza City, amid ongoing fighting between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. This photo was taken during a controlled tour by the Israeli army on Feb. 8 and subsequently edited under the supervision of the Israeli military.

Kelemen: And you must be hearing a lot of concern at the U.N. about that, right?

Thomas-Greenfield: I am hearing those concerns every single day. And what we have tried to do is keep our colleagues briefed on what is happening on the ground so that we don't take actions in the Security Council that might jeopardize the very sensitive negotiations that are taking place that we hope will lead to an extensive pause in the fighting, lead to the hostages returning to their families, and allow for humanitarian assistance to get in to Palestinians who are in desperate need.

Kelemen: On the U.N. agency that aids Palestinians, UNRWA, is the U.S. satisfied with the steps UNRWA is taking to investigate allegations that some of its staffers actually took part in the Hamas attack on Oct. 7? And will the U.S. make sure that UNRWA doesn't run out of money?

Thomas-Greenfield: Look, the U.S. has always been a strong supporter of humanitarian programs that are facilitated by UNRWA. And we have, over the course of this past few weeks, been extraordinarily saddened and disappointed that individuals who work for UNRWA participated in the heinous attack on the 7th of October. So for that reason, we paused our assistance.

But we are continuing to work with the U.N. in their effort to investigate. I know that the U.N. office of investigations are engaged in an investigation right now of those who were involved in the attack. And the secretary-general just announced a commission of three Nordic NGOs who will be working with former [French] Foreign Minister [Catherine] Colonna on addressing some of the reforms and the neutrality of UNRWA moving forward.

And so we'll continue to support those efforts, we'll continue to look for paths to provide needed humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people.

UNRWA is the only international organization with the capacity, with the infrastructure to provide that assistance. So whether it's through funding from the U.S. or funding from others, we will work to ensure that assistance continues to flow in to the people of Gaza.

Kelemen: Others, though, have kind of followed your lead in pausing aid, so I wonder if you're sending any message.

Thomas-Greenfield: I keep hearing that others followed our lead, but others saw the situation on the ground that we saw on the ground and made their own independent decisions about what they wanted to do. But we know that a number of countries and organizations have not cut off funding yet, and we obligated a significant amount of funding to UNRWA already for their 2024 program. So we're going to wait to see what the assessments show and then we'll make a decision on how to move forward.

But let me be clear. We will find a way to ensure that we continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Tinbete Ermyas
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
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