DOD's Gaza Pier and the Maritime Corridor—Gaza: The Human Toll

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This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on May 1, 2024. Watch the full video here.

Stephen Morrison: Good morning. Good afternoon. Good evening. I’m J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president here at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, CSIS, in Washington D.C. Welcome to the 11th episode of the broadcast series by CSIS, Gaza: The Human Toll. This is a partnership. It’s a product of the CSIS Bipartisan Alliance for Global Health Security, in collaboration with the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda and the CSIS Middle East Program. We’re especially grateful for the support that we’ve received from Sophia Hirshfield, on staff at the Global Health Policy Center, and our wonderful production team, Eric Ruditskiy, and Qi Yu in particular.

We’re joined today in the studio by three friends who’ve agreed to come together for this hour – Rabih Torbay, president and CEO of Project HOPE. Prior to that, 17 years in leadership positions with the International Medical Corps. Cameron Hume, executive director of the Maritime Humanitarian Aid Foundation, an effort that we’ll hear more from Cameron about that is tied with the Fogbow organization in beginning to move operations from Cyprus to Gaza. And Julian Borger – welcome, Julian – The Guardian’s world affairs editor, who’s written on this topic that’s going to be the central focus today of the DOD pier and the maritime corridor between Cyprus and Gaza.

A few quick remarks to just set the stage on what we know and don’t know about these topics. On the DOD pier, it’s expected to become operational in next seven to 10 days. Initially, with 90 trucks rolling off to the beach, and then rising – the hope is, rising to 150 trucks. Now that is, of course, important volume but, as we’ll discuss, it’s not a substitute for the land corridors and the requirements have upwards of a thousand or more trucks needed per day. It’s meant to be – the DOD pier is meant to be temporary. It is yet to be defined what that means.

Does that mean two months or three months or longer? But it is not meant to be a permanent feature. It’s meant to be additional in bringing forward new assistance and not a substitute for the land routes and that are the backbone of the response.

So for its own legitimacy and credibility it’s going to be very important that we see continued progress, steady progress, in expanding the flows coming through the land routes which have been, of course, greatly stymied in this period and it was that strangulation of the land routes that in fact set the stage for President Biden in the State of the Union address back in March announcing in fact that this DOD effort would be undertaken to try and break the gridlock.

Inspection will take place in Cyprus – there will be Israeli inspectors there – but it’ll also be a coalitional effort. This entire thing, the administration is emphasizing, is a coalitional effort with the U.S., with USAID and the Central Command, with the EU, the Emiratis, and the U.K. At the inspection point we’re expecting to see CENTCOM and USAID and U.N. and U.K. individuals embedded in this inspection process with the Israelis.

There will be two structures in the sea – I won’t go into too much detail, but there’ll be one in which freight is delivered in bulk and then moved by transport vessels on trucks – loaded on transport vessels to a pier – 1,800-foot long pier secured to the beach.

U.S. military boots are not to touch the beach. There will be three modules or three zones in which products are moved towards the beach. They’ll be driven off the pier to the beach. The IDF will take possession with drivers to a drop zone. Then there’ll be a transfer in which the World Food Programme – and the details of all of this are still under negotiation but the intention here is that the World Food Programme takes possession and control in that third zone and moves that product to warehouses and distribution points.

The assumption – the plan here is that it’s up to the U.N. to decide where these products go and that it – and that includes UNRWA as an important partner and that their concerns – there’s been lots of negotiation around humanitarian independence, neutrality, and distance from the IDF. Those discussions have been going on and continue in how this is going to be managed.

I mention that this is meant to be a coalitional effort with other governments. It has the support, reportedly, of the Palestinian Authority. There’s been negotiations with the representative in New York. There’s been negotiations with the acting prime minister.

WFP is meant to run the beachhead operations. There is, interestingly, a joint coordination cell that’s being created, which I take to mean a new form of deconfliction, which USAID, the DART team, the IDF, and World Food Programme will be embedded in some form of new deconfliction.

It’s interesting that in this period Sigrid Kaag, the Dutch minister who’s taken on the duties as the U.N. relief coordinator on Gaza, on humanitarian relief, has also stepped forward, embraced this effort – the pier and maritime corridor concept – along with expanding the other – the land routes, Jordan, Egypt, and including opening the Erez Gate in northern – that leads into Israel in the north, and she is committed – has been talking in great detail about creating a mechanism – a U.N. mechanism to monitor the flows in real time from all directions coming forward and to create greater transparency and accountability and metrics about delays and backups and efficiencies in moving product here.

A lot of the folks involved in putting this together are emphasizing that this is a – this is – creating the pier and maritime corridor, laying the groundwork in the long term for a recovery operation still to be – to be defined. There’s discussion also around this pier as a feature for a – for a postwar Gaza.

Controversies have been there from the very beginning. There’s been suspicion – open suspicion – that this pier will slow down the land routes or lead to the shutdown of the land routes. There’s a suspicion that this may be a companion to a siege of Rafah and displacement of populations towards the coast. There’s been criticism that this was just a short-term effort to placate progressive critics and others. And it’s become this very costly contortion that will only achieve, say, 1/10th or slightly – more than 1/10th of true need, at enormous cost, and take our eyes off the ball of what really needs to happen on the land routes. There’s been criticism that this puts the U.S. in a very awkward position that could compromise its standing with the U.N. and with NGOs. And that too much of this – these operations ultimately come down to trust in the IDF in providing security and in refraining from attacks and methods of slowing things down.

So those criticisms are in the air. We’ll talk more about them. There are also clearly risks. We know about Mogadishu in ’93. We know about the Beirut bombings in ’83. We know about the U.S. military deployed into Liberia for Ebola in 2014-2015. There are precedents here. In the Ebola case, it was relatively successful. It was – they got in and out fast. They broke the psychological paralysis at that time. Operationally and in terms of health, less consequential. Obviously, though, there’s great concern about protecting those 1,000 U.S. military forces who will be deployed and the various vessels and that – are that are out there against attack. And the threat of attack is real. And it’s both U.S. and Israeli security that will be out there to try to ward that off. But the memories of Mogadishu and Beirut are very real as we think about this.

The famine is continuing to surge. There’s a question of, will this relief reach those in most dire and acute and urgent need? And that USAID, interestingly, has stepped forward in the last two weeks with a very blunt internal document around the reality of famine and also the reality of violation of international humanitarian law by the Israelis. So that concern is very much out there. There’s concern that there will be continued attacks on humanitarian workers and facilities.

Back here at home, Senator Wicker, ranking minority on Senate Armed Services Committee, has registered his opposition to the DOD pier, which is an important signal. The Ebola operations back in 2014 had strong bipartisan support. It did not become politicized. This has a high potential to be politicized. Obviously, there’s the risk of backups in the Jordan flow, in the Egypt flow, in Ashdod, out of the Israeli port. And how does this all figure here at home in terms of the burgeoning of pro-Palestinian protests across American campuses, and the like?

There’s more that we can talk about, about the major developments that have also happened in this period. We know the threat of Rafah siege is still out there. The $95 billion foreign aid package included 26 billion (dollars) for Israel in Gaza, 9 billion (dollars) in humanitarian for Gaza. That’s a very important development. The UNRWA investigation has come forward from former minister – French Foreign Minister Colonna. Which has offered some exonerating conclusions and some conclusions around internal reform. And UNRWA is in still a fragile condition, it’s put out a 1.2 billion (dollar) emergency appeal, but it does seem to be restabilizing. And donors are coming back. Not the U.S., which is barred under the omnibus from getting any further assistance, but UNRWA is restabilizing.

So I’m going to stop there and turn to our – to our guests, to hear from them sort of quick opening thoughts on how you’re looking at this situation. Cameron, I’m certainly hoping we’ll hear more from you about the operation that you’re leading – involved in leading. Rabih, Project HOPE has considerable equities on the ground. You’ve been in many of these war-related humanitarian emergencies. Why don’t you open things up for us?

Rabih Torbay: Great. Steve, thank you, and CSIS, for having us here.

The humanitarian situation on the ground, we know how dire it is, right? We’ve got Rafah, we have Deir al-Balah, and we have the rest of the, you know, Strip, all under dire humanitarian situation. We’re talking about health. We’re talking about nutrition. We’re talking about food, water. We’re talking about waterborne disease and outbreaks. We need all hands-on deck. There’s absolutely no discussion about that. We need the food to come in to really avoid a major starvation in the Strip. We’re seeing malnourished cases, women and children coming to our clinics in Rafah and Deir al-Balah, in addition to the trauma cases that are coming to our doctors in Al-Aqsa Hospital.

But what is also important is to make sure that whatever we decide to do, whatever the U.S. government decides to do, and the international community, we do not ease up the pressure on the land crossing. This is the most critical thing. We welcome the maritime option. This is really important. But it should supplement what’s happening on the ground in terms of access from Egypt, from Israel, whether it’s from Rafah or Kerem Shalom or Erez. We need, as much as possible, to get those supplies in from the land routes. This is the sustainable, most economical, and this is where we can get volume. You know, those trucks – 90 trucks up to 150 – that’s great, but that’s not going to scratch the surface. We really need to focus on making sure that those land borders open up and that we can continue to put pressure, actually increase pressure, on all the players in the region to increase the volume of humanitarian assistance coming from those.

Our concern, as a humanitarian organization – we have a few concerns. You know, as I said, we welcome the additional maritime routes, but at the same time, we want to make sure that the humanitarian principles are respected for organizations working on the ground, and that we’re not seen by association as taking side with one party or the other. This is very critical for us, for our safety and security and for our independence. The second thing is we need to make sure that, you know, once the supplies make it to the pier, the transportation throughout Gaza is safe. We’ve seen what happened over the past couple of months. Trucks have been attacked. World Central Kitchen have been attacked. We lost one of our staff in Gaza as well. This is something that’s continuing. And as long as there’s no security for the transportation, those supplies could be sitting on the pier or they could be going to an area where the needs are there but they’re not the greatest. So that security is really important to be guaranteed for all international organizations and local organizations that are doing the work on the ground, as well as the U.N.

At the same time, we need to make sure that the inspection takes place in a very mature and realistic way. There are certain items that are being banned that shouldn’t be banned. I mean, for us as medical organizations, when we see scalpels being taken out of boxes, for surgeons to have to re-sterilize scalpels that they use to operate on people – that’s unacceptable. There’s a fear of dual use. Understand, everything could be perceived as dual use, but there are certain humanitarian items that need to make it in. So for the inspection teams that are, you know, that are operating in Cyprus or on the port or the different entrance – those are some of the critical things that need to be addressed, in addition to making sure that there’s clear, clear guidelines on how this is going to happen, with the World Food Programme, with UNRWA, who – you know, we cannot understate the importance of UNRWA. I mean, the largest NGO on the ground might have up to a hundred, 120 staff. UNRWA’s got 10,000 people. Without their, you know, footprint, there’s no way we can do that work. There’s no way that food distribution will take place adequately and sufficiently.

So all of those are concerns. And at the same time, we’re willing to work with, you know, whoever we can work with to make sure that that assistance makes it to the Palestinians as soon as possible. They’re dying every day, not just from conflict. We’re seeing – you know, chronic diseases are not being treated. We’re seeing – waterborne diseases are killing people. Children are dying from malnutrition. This is unacceptable and we need to do everything we can to make this happen.

Dr. Morrison: Thank you. Thank you, Rabih.

Cameron, tell us about what you’re up to.

Cameron Hume: Thank you very much, Steve.

First of all, I’d like to indicate our viewpoint is in many ways exactly the same – the question that it must be a humanitarian effort, and to the extent that this is possible in the Middle East to stay away from the political questions. That’s not our – that’s not our issue. Our issue is trying to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian supplies for a beleaguered and besieged population.

The second thing that I’d like to say is that – and you covered them pretty extensively – the question of security. How is security provided? People can have different and do have different views on this, but we think that being able to examine the palletized goods away from the conflict zone in Cyprus, we believe that the arrangements that have been made to do this will, in fact, facilitate the delivery of goods so when they arrive on the ground in Gaza there should be less of a backlog, a jamming up, doing it in a populated area in the – in the middle of a – of the summer in Gaza.

The third thing I’d like to indicate is, OK, how – if you do this by – our plan originally was to do it by barges. Before President Biden made his announcement, my colleagues were working on what the requirements would be to take 200 truck-equivalent units of humanitarian assistance, examine those for security purposes, put them on barges in Cyprus, and move these oceangoing barges to the coastline in Gaza. This arrangement would be done without cost to the humanitarian organizations. We have pledges from several governments that are substantial to be able to pay for a few months of operation, and we’re comfortable with the idea that once we get going we’ll get more pledges from other governments.

So, operating it over time. You had mentioned, Steve, the question of time. We’re not really certain when the U.S. military facility would be made available. You mentioned in your opening framing of the question some of the things in the past, whether that was Mogadishu, Liberia. We believe that there’s a role for non-governments to be able to do humanitarian work, and that this has a long tradition in the United States. And this is a way we thought of being able to do it at much lower cost than the military can do it, to move the barges in without having to have the offshore dock facility to move the items from the oceangoing vessels onto the – onto the – to dock at sea and then move them onto to the Liders, as you said, to move it in. We can take these oceangoing barges and take them right up to the shore.

So we think over time that this is a more durable solution. The military facility, in any event, is only scheduled for a few months. And Rabih would know better than me, but I don’t think anyone believes that the need will be adequately satisfied in a few months. The level of destruction and the level of need for commodities in large volumes will continue far longer than that, and we believe that this would be a good way to relieve some of the pressure on the land routes and to be able to do it more reliably. And I hope, in a – since the security inspections will be essentially done in Cyprus, to do – be able to do the security inspections outside the zone of conflict I personally believe would have benefits, so.

Dr. Morrison: Cameron, for the benefit of our – of our audience, explain a little bit of what is Fogbow. And this is a(n) initiative that emerged in parallel, really, to the announcement by the president at the State of the Union address to put the pier in. Fogbow was already entertaining this idea, right, of using its capabilities and mobilizing donors – the French or the Qataris or whoever – to donate funds, creating a foundation, and being operational to open this route. Explain a little bit more for our readers what this is. People don’t know what Fogbow is.

Mr. Hume: Right. Well, Fogbow has a website. (Laughs.) But essentially, there were a handful of former U.S. government officials, and a few individuals who worked for different humanitarian agencies who thought that there was a need that could be met by leasing oceangoing barges so that humanitarian supplies could be directly loaded onto the barges and moved – and then directly moved off, those containerized elements. And as they went forward, they got encouragement from numerous government agencies, none American, for initial funding.

But one of the questions they had was – that arose, was what should be the operational structure of the organization? And it was agreed, before I was involved with it, that it would be preferable for Fogbow to be separate from the organization that dealt with the donors, so that donors, if they were displeased with Fogbow, we could go out – that is, the foundation that’s facing towards the donors – we could look at the contract with Fogbow at arm’s length. We could get other providers to provide the same services.

I would point out the Fogbow doesn’t own the barges. Fogbow has a lease on the barges. So that – I think that that that question of a difference between Fogbow and the Maritime Humanitarian operation makes sense. And from my involvement in this of two months I would say, as you did, all hands on deck. I mean, this is – this is an enormous – it’s an enormous challenge. And as the difficulty of bringing supplies into Gaza remains critical, human lives are at stake. And I think that this makes sense, and at a lower cost over time will bring in more supplies.

Dr. Morrison: And will this operation tie together with the DOD pier eventually? Or is it parallel?

Mr. Hume: We are prepared to use the DOD pier initially. But we’re aware the DOD pier is only scheduled to be there for two months. And there’s no way that this humanitarian crisis passes away within two months. So we have the facility, because we’re using barges rather than using oceangoing ships, to bring the containerized freight to the shore.

Dr. Morrison: OK. Thank you.

Julian, thank you for the great piece that you wrote recently on this. And thanks for joining us today. How are you seeing the current situation?

Julian Borger: Well, you talk to the humanitarian workers and the agencies that have been trying to get food in for months now, and I think that the dominant feeling about this pier – that there’s an element of theater here. It was announced in the State of the Union. It was something dramatic to announce as a great demonstration of, you know, U.S. military know-how and can-do, and there are pictures now of this great pier being assembled, and it will be towed to the beach, and it’ll be great TV.

But there’s some awareness that all along there’s been a far more humdrum, obvious way of getting food in. There are land crossings that are not open. And there is a port nearby, Ashdod, that has not been, up to now, functioning or been open to the flow of humanitarian goods. So it could be driven along a very short road from Ashdod to Erez or to Karni, if that was to open. And the aid could be flooding in. And it could have been flooding in for quite a while. And the limitations are political. And it’s about the politics of Netanyahu’s government. There are some in his Cabinet who don’t want any aid in there at all, others who’d like to give more, and Netanyahu is triangulating.

So within that political environment, the question is what does this – what does this pier and dock represent? I mean, it will face some of the same problems and the same bottlenecks that aid coming in through the land routes are already facing, shortage of trucks. To some extent, that is calibrated by the Israelis as well because they have to license trucks to be able to go in and operate within Gaza.

The ones that arrive at Rafah and Kerem Shalom they unload and then the food is transferred to other trucks. So there’s a limit on the number of trucks inside and that is a bottleneck. The number of drivers prepared to drive this stuff around, especially after the World Central Kitchen bombing on the 1st of April, that’s an issue and also they have to be licensed by the Israelis.

As I understand it this pier will join the coast south of the Netzarim corridor, which is a fortified road that is –

Dr. Morrison: It bisects Gaza.

Mr. Borger: It bisects Gaza sort of, I don’t know, two-thirds of the way up Gaza. It’s a military road and a fortified road and the key Israeli IDF checkpoints are along that road. If you want to go north you have to go through either one, the coastal checkpoint or the one on the road going through the middle.

So food coming off will still have to go through those checkpoints and one of the problems in recent weeks has been food coming up from Rafah or Kerem Shalom has not been able to go past those checkpoints, especially food being brought by U.N. agencies. So will that now be fixed for this maritime corridor is not clear.

So there are, you know, a lot of the same issues. This question of inspections that we’ve been talking about and the seemingly sometimes arbitrary and nonsensical criteria being used to reject cargoes will that now be different when it’s carried out in Larnaca than when it’s been in Saana or Kerem Shalom. We don’t know.

But the issue is, you know, this is another way to get some trucks in. But a lot of the same problems and unanswered questions remain for the maritime corridor just the same for the land corridor.

Dr. Morrison: You know, the debate here around U.S. policy and President Biden’s perspective on this has been – a lot of it has been expressions of disappointment that the Biden administration was unwilling to condition security assistance against these humanitarian and health considerations and the siege and the pace of delivery and as things were worsening, and the manner of warfare and the excessive mortality of women and children and civilians in general and the levels of destruction.

We got this pier announced in the State of the Union address as, OK, we’re signaling something. We’re signaling some exceptionalism, right, to this. Then we had the killing on April 1st of the World Central Kitchen’s seven staff and then we had President Biden’s April 4th conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu in which he walked right up to the line in terms of saying, we’ve got to see dramatic proof along the lines of what you’re talking about – we’ve got to see pretty rapidly dramatic proof. Otherwise, conditionality comes into the picture.

It was interesting. Rabih and I were at the memorial service – you may have been there as well, I don’t know – but the memorial service last week for the seven World Central Kitchen employees, which was at the National Cathedral.

A couple things really struck me at that session. One was national news covered this. Every national outlet covered this. The degree to which this issue has entered our domestic consciousness and to domestic political debate is remarkable and you can account for it in this steady accumulation.

It is a huge domestic political issue now, not just tied to the campus revolts but tied to the electoral process and what is U.S. policy and the like. And, interestingly, Andrés was – while memorializing these seven victims Chef Andrés also left open the option for renewing operations and then two days later, three days later, announced he would be returning, which also is interesting because that return brings the moral standing that he has – the moral and high standing.

My question to each of you is: Have things really changed, do you think, politically in the balance in the dialogue between highest levels of our government and the highest levels of the Israeli government? What do you think, Cameron?

Mr. Hume: Steve – (laughs) – what’s going on between the highest levels of government I’m not sure, but what we can see and we believe will be true is that the opening of the maritime corridor with the U.S. military involved is going to get a different response from the IDF when it comes to doing the security checks and moving the things off the beach. The relationship that the U.S. military has to the IDF I think can be used to break through some of the bottlenecks that have been confronted in the movement of humanitarian goods. Now, I’m not sure that this will – nothing solves everything in the Middle East I’m afraid, but I think nevertheless it will be a good impetus in order to start the movement of goods, including across the barrier road that cuts through central Gaza.

Dr. Morrison: I mean, when President Obama went down to Atlanta in September – September 16th of 2014 and announced 3,000 troops would be deployed into Liberia within the next two weeks, that – you know, he hadn’t entertained that idea two weeks before that. It hadn’t crossed his mind to do something like this. It was deployed. It did crack the paralysis. The, you know, air flights were shutting down. Movement of goods was shutting down. It wasn’t the solution to all of the needs in the three principal countries that were affected by Ebola, but it had a dramatic psychological and logistical impact in terms of the behavior of the parties on the ground, a very, very dramatic impact. And what you’re suggesting is something similar to that, I think, Cameron.

Mr. Hume: Yeah. I think it’s not – the influence is not simply from a phone call from the president to the prime minister. I think that at a different way there’s – there are organizational influences. And as the U.S. military deals with putting up this dock, the U.S. military is not comfortable with putting in a dock and not moving any material off onto the beach, and they’re not going to be comfortable with the idea that when they move it onto the beach it’s left on the beach and it doesn’t feed anyone. And so I think there’s going to be an institutional pressure behind these deliveries that I hope will make the entire process work a little bit better.

Dr. Morrison: Are you worried that that synchronization is not going to happen?

Mr. Hume: Well, I live in hope, and I think you have – (laughs) – you have – you have these big organizations headed by people who I would assume have, you know, serious good, positive motivations and are not used to failure. And I think that, yes, there will be some friction, but I believe that this situation will open up.

Dr. Morrison: Rabih?

Mr. Torbay: I mean, we all hope that this would work. But going back to your question about whether we’re seeing a difference between talk and action on the ground, we haven’t seen much difference yet.

Dr. Morrison: After April 4th.

Mr. Torbay: After April 4th. It’s still the same thing. We’re still seeing, you know, yes, on Monday 316 trucks made it through, which is the highest number of trucks that made it through, and this is nothing. We need tenfold this number of trucks to satisfy the humanitarian needs in Gaza.

You know, we’ve seen a lot of messages – a lot of strong messages – but did that translate into action on the ground? We haven’t seen that yet. And for us, that’s concerning. We hope that once – you know, once the pier is operational and, you know, food will start coming in, there will be seamless, you know, distribution, and that would alleviate some of the suffering. But until then, it’s just been talk.

And the supplemental is fantastic. I mean, that supplemental, we were all praying for that supplemental because the needs are huge and organizations are stretched thin. But at the end of the day, logistics, security, and access – unhindered access for a humanitarian organization – is critical. And until we see that, the humanitarian situation on the ground might not change that much.

Dr. Morrison: So, what – I mean, Cameron’s saying the reality of DOD reaching the point of operationalizing this vision is going to create all sorts of expectations and pressures. What more needs to happen from the White House, in your view?

Mr. Torbay: You know, when we started this conversation, we spoke about the maritime route but we always ended up with the land.

Dr. Morrison: Land access.

Mr. Torbay: We need pressure to allow more trucks to enter Gaza from all accesses, whether it’s Rafah, al-Awdah, or Kerem Shalom, or Erez. There are trucks lined up. If you go to Egypt, there are trucks lined up, you know, beyond what you can see. They’re not being allowed in. Allow access. Do your inspection and allow access. Stop creating those bottlenecks and then, you know, that proves that there is actually action behind the talk. And until then – again, the maritime route, 90 trucks, that’s fantastic. But that’s nothing. That’s nothing.

Dr. Morrison: Yeah. Less than a tenth of what you need.

Julian, what are your thoughts?

Mr. Morger: Well, I mean, part of my job is I go along to the State Department most days. (Laughter.) And every day, you know, the briefing is about we’ve been promised Erez will be opened and then another northern crossing will be opened, for weeks. And it’s been Groundhog Day. And I think that is an illustration of the very limited, still invisible, U.S. sway over the Netanyahu government, which is – whose actions are entirely explained by Israeli politics, and Netanyahu’s desire to keep this existing coalition together. And he – you know, the amount of trucks being let in is far more a function of that than conversations between the Americans and the Israelis.

And the Israelis and Netanyahu are well aware that it could hurt Joe Biden if he started imposing conditionality on weapons supplies to Israel in the middle of an election year. It’s very – it’s very hot button in American politics. There’s just been this mass Iranian missile attack on Israel. So the optics of that would be, you’re leaving Israel defenseless in – before Iran and Hezbollah. And so there’s only so much sway that Biden saying to Netanyahu, you know, no more Mr. Nice Guy, can have because he knows the limits on Biden.

Interestingly enough, it’s possible that all this talk of ICC charges and warrants may be having an impact on the Israeli leadership. They certainly seem, by Israeli reports, to be very worried about it. And if there are such charges and warrants, I think it’s a fair guess that they will take into account or focus on the humanitarian delivery or the restriction of humanitarian delivery into an area where people are starving.

Dr. Morrison: Cameron, you’re a retired senior diplomat. What would the ICC indictment mean?

Mr. Hume: I can’t speculate on internal Israeli politics. I know I was in – I was in Sudan during the Darfur genocide. I regularly dealt with President Bashir. There was – there was no choice. You deal with the – you deal with the authorities who were there to try to change the situation. We were able to get into agreement which at the time, I think it’s fair to say, stopped the Darfur genocide or the Darfur genocide stopped when we got the agreement. I don’t know about causality.

Do I think that the ICC involvement and investigation into Bashir had a positive impact? Do I think that his indictment and eventual removal from power has had a positive impact? I don’t think you could prove that by looking at the situation in Darfur today. So while I understand the aspirations of the of the ICC, I have my doubts that that’s the best way to get decisions made in Jerusalem – in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Dr. Morrison: Mmm hmm.

Rabih, what do you think?

Mr. Torbay: Oh, Steve, you know very well I’m not going to comment on that one. I mean, listen, the ICC is doing what they’re doing. And the reaction of the Israeli government will be, you know, what it is. For us, what’s more important is change, change on the ground. And if that would create change on the ground in terms of, you know, better humanitarian situation, better access, you know, safety for civilians in Gaza, absolutely. But as an organization, we really don’t take sides in these issues. And our focus will continue to be we need to do what we can to alleviate the suffering of people.

Dr. Morrison: How important – how important do you think it is that under Sigrid Kaag – the newly appointed U.N. coordinator through the U.N. Security Council resolution – how important is what she’s doing in creating a new capability, more muscular capability, by the U.N. to be tracking, and coordinating, and bringing transparency to all these points where things get stuck? So that you can get a dashboard, I think that’s what she’s trying to do. How significant is that? Do you have hope that that’s going to result in anything, or is it I likely to –

Mr. Torbay: I think it is critical. It is critical that the U.N. takes a stronger stance on these issues, creates transparency, shows that there is no need for parallel system to the U.N. Which is a concern with everything that’s going on, that is this a parallel system to the U.N.? Is this a parallel system to the humanitarian mechanism that’s on the ground? We need the U.N. to be supported and empowered to do their role. And I think she’s doing a great job, you know, starting moving this process forward. And we’re all supportive.

At the end of the day, there are existing mechanisms that are sustainable. You know, the pier might go after two months or three months. Fogbow, we don’t know how long it’s going to last. When the war ends – and we hope it ends very soon – it’s the U.N. and NGOs that will be on the ground to pick up the pieces and rebuild Gaza and rebuild health systems in Gaza. And make sure that, you know, the lives of civilians in Gaza improves. So it is very important to support the U.N., support the system that’s being created, and not try to create a parallel system of coordination. That cannot happen.

Dr. Morrison: What do you think the odds are that Netanyahu’s going to stick to his repeated promise that he’s going to – he’s going to take out the four battalions in Rafah, come hell or high water? What do you think, Julian? Because if that – if that happens, the game changes back to a much more catastrophic game, right? Right now, we’re in a process where you say there’s been some marginal modest improvements on the land routes, there’s a new system being put in place, we have these new capabilities that are being launched. DOD, Fogbow, others.

World Central Kitchen is coming back in the game. You know, it’s not like people are fleeing. They’re coming back in. It’s a promising moment. There’s hope that these negotiations may lead to some kind of deal. But then again, we all know how the two sides – how existential this is for the two sides. And then Netanyahu almost every day comes back and says, after he’s nudged by his finance ministers or security minister, comes back and says: Come hell or high water, I’m taking those four battalions out. What would you predict?

Mr. Borger: Yeah. Certainly the timing of those comments, just when the negotiators in the – in the room seemed to be making some progress with this Egyptian proposal, so detailed and intricate. And then you have Netanyahu come in with a sledgehammer, saying: If you do a deal or if you don’t do a deal, I’m still going into Rafah. Which obviously affects the issue of trust in getting that negotiation done. You know, the terms that are agreed, will they be stuck to, is the underlying problem behind a lot of this. So point one is likely to make negotiating that ceasefire more difficult.

Up to now, or up to recently, there hadn’t been many signs of any kind of military preparations for any kind of Rafah offensive. Now we’re beginning to see that. The Americans say they still haven’t been presented with a coherent humanitarian plan about what happens to the million-plus people in Rafah. That the Israelis bought some tents, but there isn’t anything like the sort of organization of displaced camps that would be needed for that kind of movement of people. So, you know, at the moment it exists largely on the rhetorical level.

I think Netanyahu needs to keep the threat out there for political reasons. But there are a lot of reporting out of Israel that the IDF itself is not keen on a Rafah offensive and not – doesn’t see it as worth it strategically in terms of taking on these battalions for the kind of trap – military trap that it might represent. So I think that at the moment a Rafah offensive is some time off and yet to be really agreed within the Israeli security hierarchy.

Dr. Morrison: Cameron, what are your thoughts?

Mr. Hume: Steve, well, I don’t know the answer to your question, but, well, I believe that we really have to be ready to confront the things that we don’t know, not simply the things that we hope for. And I look at Fogbow and the effort that I’m involved in as trying to get all channels open to get humanitarian aid in for people who need it without wondering will it – will that really – will that extra channel really be needed. As far as I can see, it is needed, it will be needed for some time to come, and I’d like to see it operational as soon as possible bringing in whether it’s a hundred or 200 trucks per barge, but as soon as possible to make a positive contribution.

Dr. Morrison: What’s the best scenario for launch of the Fogbow operation?

Mr. Hume: Realistically, I think the best scenario is one of the humanitarian organizations agrees – we have agreement with some, but they’re mostly on the medical side rather than the food side. And that’s lower volume, and so it would be better if we could get a commitment from one of the large organizations that brings in food such as World Food Programme so that you actually have proof of concept, and you have barges coming in, and you have them going and dealing with the Israeli security forces, and then seeing if the – if the supplies are being able to be actually distributed and used by agencies in Gaza to meet the immediate needs. That’s the best scenario.

Mr. Torbay: Let’s just hope that the talk about Rafah is just a negotiation technique, that it never happens. Because if we’re talking about major humanitarian disaster, that will be a major – a humanitarian disaster on steroids. We’re talking about a million-plus people that have no place to go. We’re talking about people with no access to food, no access to health care, no shelter. Where are they going to go? Into 40,000 tents that were bought or something like that? That’s not going to solve it. So let’s just hope that it’s a negotiation technique, and let’s hope that the U.S. government and every other government that has any influence with Israel would talk them out of attacking Rafah, because that would be a complete disaster.

Cameron, I agree, you know, that we need to get things as much as – you know, as much as possible. There’s no doubt about that. But you mentioned something about the Middle East and the importance of perceptions in the Middle East. Everything is built on perception. The timing of Fogbow, if it’s timed – you know, it could be a coincidence, but the perception is it might be timed in line with a potential attack on Rafah and the supplies are being used by IDF as a safety net for people, you know, when they move from Rafah to another area. That undermines every good intention that you might have in terms of serving the population without any political agenda there. The idea is to serve people in need. And that’s a concern. That’s a concern. And as you know, all it takes is, you know, one mention of that and it – you know, the rumor becomes more of a reality on the ground.

And association with the group that might be perceived as biased with the IDF for any humanitarian organization could be problematic because we pay the consequences in terms of, you know, impacting our impartiality and neutrality. And those are some of the considerations. This is why probably there is some resistance in terms of association, because of the fear of what might happen. How would we be perceived? Would we be perceived as a tool or as an instrument by governments or organizations to achieve a certain political agenda?

Mr. Hume: I can assure you in my conversations with the people at Fogbow that I don’t – I don’t reach that conclusion. But I – but I am aware of the fear, but there’s – I have a different fear. I have the – I have the fear that the failure to cooperate and get the maximum amount of food in, in order to preserve, to reduce that concern of collaboration – the people who pay for that activation of that fear are the Palestinians who are not fed and who don’t get medical treatment. And I don’t know the future, but as a human being I would rather take the risk of trying to get the food aid in and the medical supplies in and deal with the challenges as they come up, rather than to stand off out of concern that well, maybe there’ll be a perception by someone else. I’m aware that’s how the Middle East largely operates, but in this case, it’s a risk I’d rather take.

Mr. Borger: Can I ask: The plan where you were going to bring barges in, that was going to be outside an Israeli IDF security perimeter – is that right? – and then north of the Netzarim Corridor, so ideally, sort of outside that perceived –

Mr. Hume: That is correct. That is correct. And that’s still on the table. But how many things do you – how many – (laughs) – how many animals do you chase at one time? And in this case, because of the Biden decision and the activation and the bringing of the dock and all of the sort of bureaucratic wait that goes behind that, we’re ready to cooperate with them, but we understand that they will go away. And we believe that when they go away the need is going to stay, and we would like to serve that need.

Mr. Borger: Of course, the big concern was that this food was going to come in and not be where it’s most urgently required, in the – in the north, and it would be behind this big barrier separating it from the north. So, in theory, if you can bring barges in directly to north, would that – would that address that concern?

Mr. Hume: Well, we’re convinced that we can do that, but the work doing that has been put in abeyance – (audio break).

Dr. Morrison: There is no stated vision by the Israeli government of what a postwar governance will look like, right? There is the denial of the two-state; there’s a denial of working with the Palestinian Authority; certainly Hamas must be destroyed or removed in some fashion. And here we are with a DOD pier creating a kind of proto-port, right, a proto-facility at the coast, which was called for in the Oslo Accords, never granted. And how does all of this unfold in the midst of this kind of void around what the governing circumstances are going to be? I mean, the U.S. government is talking about sending authority, about the DOD and the maritime corridor, and getting pretty positive vibes, but is this raising their hope that this will help move towards some postwar reality with a new capability on the coast?

Mr. Hume: You’re thinking like a Middle Easterner now, Steve. That’s not our – we’re aware that people are concerned about these political considerations, but that’s not our approach. They’ll have to –

Dr. Morrison: No, I’m not suggesting that’s your approach. I’m asking you to – this is in the air. It’s an issue. It’s an uncertainty, this whole issue around sovereignty and where does – you were saying you need something, when the DOD pier disappears you need something there. I admit that. We also need to – need some kind of future in which this all fits, and right now that’s not defined at all.


Mr. Borger: I think that’s what they – Tony Blinken and the U.S. administration is putting into – put into Netanyahu’s cabinet all the time is you’ve got some choices here: either it’s going to be Hamas that’s going to pop back up or you’re going to have to run Gaza yourselves, or there’ll be chaos, unless you engage in some kind of dialogue about what the future of Gaza would look like, and that we think – we, the U.S., think that should involve Palestinian Authority and progress towards a two-state solution, creation of a Palestinian state. But this Israeli government will not and cannot go there. I think there will only be clarity when there are Israeli elections and if some other kind of political constellation comes together it’s not clear that there is a constituency – sufficient constituency in Israeli society to move in that direction.

And so I think it’s likely to be very messy for the foreseeable future in terms of a coherent vision for what will happen.

Dr. Morrison: Thank you.

We’re getting to the end of the hour here. I don’t want to end on a down note, so I’m going to ask each of you to tell me what is – what’s a source of optimism in this picture. I think we’ve talked optimistically about some of the developments that have happened, but start with you, Rabih.

Mr. Torbay: Resilience. The resilience of health workers and humanitarian workers and civilians in Gaza. What we’ve seen, what – I mean, if you look at the reception of some of the humanitarian workers in Gaza when they found out that the World Central Kitchen is going to operate again, if you see, you know, how they rallied around us after one of our team members were killed.

The resilience of Palestinians, of health workers, and humanitarian workers gives me hope and I do hope that we do not go back to status quo, to how it was before the war, that Gaza actually – the people in Gaza – the civilians in Gaza will live in peace and pride and respect and they deserve that and I believe that, hopefully, something good will come out of this – you know, that 34,000 people that died in Gaza did not die for nothing.

Dr. Morrison: Thank you.


Mr. Hume: I think that I’m reassured when I look at the landscape of all the humanitarian organizations that have operated there, that there is broad public concern to help, to get the aid to the Palestinian people, and to bring about the end of the humanitarian crisis that is on us. We can do this and we ought to do it.

Dr. Morrison: Thank you.


Mr. Borger: I have some hope that the threat of the enforcement of international humanitarian law might come – have an effect, that people know that this is a war crime to restrict the flow of food into an area where people are starving.

I think the more that that is expressed in the public domain, the U.S. government – you’re seeing it come from – USAID, you know, it run by someone who wrote the book “A Problem From Hell” – Samantha Power. She knows everything about international humanitarian law. A I think that that may be having a moment now with the cases before the ICJ, ICC. I think they do have an effect on people, and I think no government wants to be seen as committing war crimes. And I think the more that is spoken about, brought back on the table, the more hope there will be of a serious change in the way that humanitarian relief is allowed into Gaza.

Dr. Morrison: Thank you.

I think I would add that the change in our own domestic politics is pretty remarkable in terms of the elevation of this issue into popular consciousness on a day-to-day basis. And the protests have driven this, the World Central Kitchen killings, the realities of what’s been happening internally and the way those have been conveyed. It’s hard to encounter anyone who’s not watching and thinking about this and expecting to see more leadership on this. They may differ around questions of conditionality and their view of Israel versus Palestinian Authority, but this humanitarian and health catastrophe has registered in the consciousness of a deep number of Americans and translated into a set of political expectations that I would not have predicted three months ago – in the, you know, three months or four months into this war that we would have seen – that we’d be at the moment where we are right now.

But thank you so much, Rabih Torbay, Cameron Hume, Julian Borger. This has been a great conversation. We will post this on the CSIS homepage,, right away, and in a couple of hours there will be a companion transcript added to that. Please stay tuned; there will be more episodes coming forward of this show, the Gaza – Gaza: The Human Toll. And thank you all for being with us today. And many thanks to our terrific production team and to Sophia Hirshfield for all the help that they’ve provided us. Thank you.