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Cease-fire resolution, growing support for Gaza in the U.S. sour relations with Israel

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was supposed to send a delegation to Washington today at President Biden's request. But Netanyahu canceled the visit yesterday because the U.S. abstained rather than vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution demanding a cease-fire in Gaza and the unconditional release of hostages taken by Hamas when it attacked Israel on October 7. The move by the United States comes as more and more Americans are voicing concern about the mass displacement of Palestinians in Gaza, the constant bombardments and the mass hunger. One of the people who was supposed to travel to D.C. today was Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer. He, of course, did not make that trip. And so he joins me now from Israel. Good morning, and welcome to the program.

RON DERMER: Good to be with you.

FADEL: So I want to start with this meeting. You were supposed to be in Washington today at the request of the president of the United States, arguably your closest and most important ally. Israel rejected his request in the most public way possible. How is that helpful for Israel?

DERMER: Well, it's not arguably the most important ally, it's definitely Israel's most important ally. We were very disappointed with the decision of the United States to abstain and to not veto that resolution because what was new about that Security Council resolution is for the first time, it's separated the issue of a cease-fire from the demand to release the hostages. They were not connected, as they were just a few days earlier in a resolution that the United States put forward that the Chinese and the Russians vetoed. Now, that has been the importance of linking these two issues together, the cease-fire with the return of hostages, that has been a consistent United States position for the past almost six months. And unfortunately, they changed their policy there.

Now, I was glad to hear that the White House and the State Department made clear that there is not a change in policy, but unfortunately, that's not what the text said. And because that's not what the text said, it's not surprising that Hamas and Iran blessed the U.N. Security Council decision that was made - the resolution that was passed and not vetoed by the United States. And I'll tell you, Leile, if Hamas and Iran are blessing a U.N. Security Council resolution, it's safe to say that it's not good for Israel, and I would argue it's not good for America.

FADEL: Now, a lot of the international community also blessed it because they're very concerned about the catastrophic situation in Gaza, the mass hunger, and they do want a cease-fire in order to get badly needed humanitarian aid inside. And many of those people blame Israel for the trickle of aid that is getting in there and what seems starvation of children right now. What is being done to get aid in in a way that will actually stave off imminent famine?

DERMER: Well, there's no imminent famine. I think that's a complete lie and fabrication.

FADEL: That's what the U.N. says. And much of the...

DERMER: Yeah. I understand the U.N. is...

FADEL: ...International community aid workers.

DERMER: ...Relying on reports. I heard what you said, and I heard your question. If you'd allow me to respond.

FADEL: Sure.

DERMER: That's a libel against Israel. You are taking - not just you, but the world is taking Hamas health ministry statistics at face value, a propaganda from U.N. organizations that are there in Gaza. Understand, the most important U.N. organization operating in Gaza is the UNRWA organization. Now, 10% of UNRWA are Hamas operatives, and there were a dozen or more UNRWA officials who participated in the massacres on October 7. The information that we have in Israel, and I think we have a pretty good idea of what's going on in Gaza, is that there is no starvation. We have ramped up humanitarian assistance. We continue to do so. We don't have any interest in harming the people of Gaza. We have an interest in getting after the Hamas terrorists.

I think over the last week, about a couple hundred trucks have been entering every day. There's a real, serious problem, Leila, with the distribution of the aid once it gets into Gaza. I mean, we can bring it to the border, we can inspect it and have it go on the other side. But distributing it becomes a huge problem because a lot of people are stealing it, gangs are taking it over and Hamas is taking it over, as well. And so we want to make sure that aid goes to the people of Gaza. That's why there's airdrops of aid, which, of course, also happened today. We're trying to get a maritime link to get more aid in there. We're opening up new passages so that more aid can come in.

Israel will do its part to ensure that enough humanitarian assistance gets into Gaza. We have no problem with that. That's our policy. And those people who are suggesting that Israel has a policy of denying food or basic humanitarian assistance to the people in Gaza, it is simply not true. It is false, and it's a libel against Israel. And I think when the dust settles, people will see the truth about what's happening inside of Gaza.

FADEL: Now, NPR has documented cases of extreme hunger. The world's leading experts on global hunger say famine is imminent. You're doubting the world's leading experts?

DERMER: Absolutely. I'm doubting it because I know what's happening in Gaza, because I sit in the Israeli war cabinet and day after day we get the reports. I sat in a cabinet meeting just on Thursday, and we saw exactly the pictures of food markets in Gaza, around 30 different places throughout Gaza. Those are not pictures that you would see that came that same day from a place suffering imminent famine. It is simply not the case.

In fact, we did an analysis - our military did an analysis of all the food that is coming in, and understand, more food is entering Gaza today than entered Gaza before October 7. What you don't have is the manufacturing of food within Gaza. But there's more food entering it today, more trucks of food - listen to what I'm saying. More trucks of food are entering Gaza today than entered before October 7. And our military did an analysis of how much calories are entered of that food and it's 3,000 calories per person in Gaza. So even if half of that is destroyed for some reason, you'd have 1,500 calories a per day per person in Gaza. So this is simply not the case.

FADEL: OK. But we had the spokesperson for UNICEF on today who was in North Gaza describing extreme famine. You also mentioned UNRWA there. Twelve out of 13,000 employees are accused. Does that disallow that entire organization that so many people depend on?

DERMER: I think when - no. Twelve people were accused of perpetrating the massacres of October 7, 10% of UNRWA are Hamas operatives. Fifty percent are first-degree relatives of Hamas operatives. You have 4 to 500 who are part of the military machine of Hamas. What type of U.N. organization is hiring 500 people who are part of a terror organization? I think it actually stains the entire organization. And that's why Israel has said that we're going to stop all cooperation with UNRWA. Now, we'd love to have other U.N. organizations there. There's the World Food Program...

FADEL: That's, of course, something that...

DERMER: ...There's UNICEF, there's other groups that we can work with.

FADEL: ...They dispute. But I would like to talk about Rafah before we run out of time, because the point...

DERMER: Sure.

FADEL: ...Of this trip was alternative options. Is our alternative options for Rafah off the table?

DERMER: Well, the United States, the president had asked the Prime Minister to send a delegation so that the United States could present its ideas for some alternative to a major military operation in Gaza. Now, this is not the first time we've had a disagreement with the United States over our military operations. Even at the beginning of the war, there was a disagreement of whether we should go in with a ground campaign. Now, that ground campaign proved very, very effective. And without it, there's simply no way to dismantle Hamas' military organization. And that's the key goal of the war that has to be accomplished to ensure that October 7 can never happen again, and we're well on our way to accomplish it.

FADEL: Minister for Strategic Affairs in Israel, Ron Dermer. I will say, though, before that - we go that we have documented at NPR, our reporter has the fact that children are starving in Gaza. Thank you for being on the program.

I'm going to bring in our correspondent on the ground, Daniel Estrin, and I want to start with hunger. It's something you've been reporting on. We heard the minister say it's not true. What does our reporting show?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: We've been working with a photojournalist in Gaza City in North Gaza, Omar El Qattaa, who has been documenting cases of extreme hunger, cases of families who are unable to afford the exorbitant prices on the black market of food, people who have been feeding their children animal feed. I have spoken with a former senior Israeli official on military law who said Israel, quote, "cannot dodge responsibility." Wherever the military has conquered Gaza, like in North Gaza, it has a responsibility in that area to ensure that civilians are fed. Secretary of State Antony Blinken himself has cited the extreme hunger in Gaza. And this is something that we're hearing the Israeli minister rejecting.

FADEL: Help us understand how the minister's words there play into this growing rift between the U.S. and Israel.

ESTRIN: You hear Israelis today alarmed by the growing public rift with the Biden administration and how the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been openly sparring with the U.S. administration by not sending his minister, Ron Dermer, to meet with officials in Washington. Netanyahu's Israel, in the eyes of many here in Israel, is becoming more and more isolated in the world and now by its strongest ally. All of this, I think, Leila, is connected to Netanyahu's reliance on the far right in his government, relying on them for his political survival. Netanyahu cannot do basic things that the Biden administration is demanding an improvement in the humanitarian situation in Gaza. But the far right in Israel's government is opposing aid getting into Gaza and is even allowing protesters to block border crossings where aid gets in.

Netanyahu has not discussed a clear day after the war plan. He is not willing to entertain the Biden administration's hope that Hamas be replaced by the moderate Palestinian leadership based in the West bank. The far right in Israel sees that as uniting the Palestinian territories and perhaps leading to a Palestinian state, which Netanyahu has rejected. And so you're seeing here the Biden administration losing patience with Israel over this war as it's dragging on. I think that is the context of what we saw in the U.N. Security Council.

And a State Department memo that was leaked to NPR shows that the Biden administration believes that the Israelis are making a mistake not understanding the reputational damage that this war is causing Israel around the world. Right now, Netanyahu needs a picture of victory against Hamas to convince Israelis that the war has indeed changed the status quo. The Rafah operation that Israel is vowing, which the Biden administration rejects, is the latest wedge in this relationship between the U.S. and Israel, a rift that is widening even further today, as we heard with the minister's words.

FADEL: NPR's Daniel Estrin joining us from Israel. Thank you, Daniel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: The U.N. Agency for Relief and Works, or UNWRA, that Israeli minister Ron Dermer referred to, is the largest humanitarian organization operating in Gaza. The agency dismissed those Israel accused of being involved in the October 7 attack and launched an investigation. The UNWRA representative in Washington has told NPR that their employee lists were given to Israel for vetting prior to October 7, and Israel never alerted the organization to any Hamas operatives in their ranks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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