Israel struck Palestinian police escorting Gaza aid, says US envoy

By Thomson Reuters Feb 16, 2024 | 2:03 PM

By Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top U.S. diplomat involved in humanitarian assistance for Gaza said on Friday that Israeli forces earlier this month killed Palestinian police protecting a U.N. aid convoy in the enclave’s embattled southern city of Rafah.

As a result, Palestinian police have refused to protect convoys, hampering aid deliveries inside Gaza because of threats from criminal gangs, said David Satterfield, Washington’s special regional envoy for humanitarian issues.

“With the departure of police escorts, it has been virtually impossible for the U.N. or anyone else, Jordan, the UAE, or any other implementer to safely move assistance in Gaza because of criminal elements,” Satterfield told an event hosted by the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Satterfield said the police escorts include Hamas members but also officers with no direct affiliation to the militant group.

Israel’s military did not immediately provide comment on his remarks.

Most of Gaza’s 2.2 million Palestinians have been displaced by Israeli ground and air operations triggered by the Oct. 7 rampage into southern Israel by the enclave’s ruling Hamas militants, who Israel has vowed to crush.

Israeli bombardments and fighting have destroyed huge swathes of the enclave and created a humanitarian disaster that is prompting fears among aid groups of starvation. The U.N. has said aid has been impeded by Israeli forces, a charge Israel denies.

Satterfield was asked if there was any truth to a report that Israeli troops killed “Hamas operatives” protecting a U.N. aid convoy in Rafah earlier this month.

“The IDF (Israeli Defense Force) 10 days, two weeks ago, did indeed strike at seven, eight, or nine police officials, including a commander whose units had been involved in providing escorts,” he replied.

Such escorts were needed because of attacks on aid convoys first by “desperate” Palestinians and “then by criminal elements,” Satterfield said.

The police “certainly include Hamas elements. They also include individuals who don’t have a direct affiliation with Hamas who are there as part of the Palestinian Authority’s remnant presence and security,” he said, referring to the Western-backed body that exercises limited governance in the occupied West Bank.

On Feb. 10, Hamas and Gaza medics said that two Israeli airstrikes had killed five members of Rafah’s Hamas-run police force, including a senior officer. The same day, Israel’s military said it had struck and killed three Hamas militants in Rafah, including two senior operatives in the area.

It was not clear if Satterfield was referring to the Feb. 10 incident. Hamas has not said if it has stopped police escorts of aid convoys.

Satterfield said the U.S. was working with the Israeli government and military to determine “what solutions can be found because everyone wants the assistance to continue.”

In addition to the threat posed by criminals, aid distribution is hampered by “the rising value of humanitarian assistance” leaking into the black market, Satterfield said.

He denied allegations that Hamas has stolen aid and commercial shipments into Gaza, saying that no Israeli official has presented him or the Biden administration with “specific evidence of diversion or theft of assistance.”

But, he continued, Hamas has been using other aid delivery channels to “shape where and to whom assistance goes.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay with additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Cairo; editing by Rami Ayyub and Diane Craft)