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Background Briefing: On the Situation in Gaza


Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
En route to Ramstein, Germany
August 1, 2014

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MODERATOR: Okay. So this is just a background briefing on the situation in Gaza. Obviously, you all have the Secretary’s statement. I’m just going to give you a quick summary of the calls he’s done on the plane, and we’ll also get you a copy, as I mentioned, of Robert Serry’s statement.

On the plane in the last couple of hours he’s spoken with Saeb Erekat, he’s spoken with Foreign Minister Attiyah, he’s spoken with Foreign Minister Davutoglu, with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and he has a scheduled call with President Abbas. He’s also – anyone else I missed? Susan Rice?

STAFF: Yeah.

MODERATOR: Also of course been in touch with Susan Rice. That will certainly continue. You’ve all seen the statement which is pretty self-explanatory. One other technical question – Frank Lowenstein, obviously as told all of you last night, left for Egypt. We are still working with the Egyptians, we’ll work with the Egyptians to determine what the next step is there. Obviously, they’ve indicated a willingness to host negotiations, but our primary focus here continues to be on determining how to get to a ceasefire. Our effort is in working with – the question for us, for everybody, really, at this point with the – is where do we go from here. So not just the United States but the international community, where we proceed from here. And that’s one of the – obviously the major topic of discussion of the Secretary’s calls.

QUESTION: You guys negotiated the ceasefire. Where do you want to go from here? Do you know where you want to go from here? And what is the message that the Secretary’s communicated in his calls? Are you seeking to restore the ceasefire, or do you believe that that effort should be put on the shelf for the time being?

MODERATOR: Well, I’ll just start and I – obviously, my colleague here may have a lot of smart things to say to add. One of our first focuses here is doing everything we can, including engaging with the Qataris and the Turks to secure the release and return of the Israeli soldier who has been reportedly kidnapped by Hamas. Our goal and our objective remains the same, and that is achieving a ceasefire. Obviously, given the circumstances on the ground and the violence that’s going back and forth, that’s not something that is currently operable, but that is the only viable way, in our view, that we can see an end to the violence.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, I agree with all that, and I guess I would only add that we have reiterated, as we have many times throughout this conflict, particularly in our conversations – Secretary’s conversations today with Prime Minister Netanyahu our strong support for Israel’s and any country’s right, inherent right, to defend itself, its citizens, and its forces against attacks, and particularly egregious attacks that take place in the context of a ceasefire, which there is just simply no excuse for at all.

QUESTION: I don't know if this is as much of a question as just kind of stating the obvious and asking you all to give some feedback on it, but clearly, this probably shows that people can’t control some factions of Hamas, right? I mean, you can’t believe that – or, well, maybe one couldn’t believe that the partners and the people who have been trying to work towards this ceasefire agree in any shape or form of what happened on the ground here.

So just with that in mind that this – as a colleague said, this could have been five militants who just kind of unilaterally dissolve this whole thing without any higher command or approval, how do you all factor that into where we go from here?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I guess I would just start by saying that our view is that Hamas has security control over the Gaza Strip, and that if we’re going to be negotiating a ceasefire with two sides in a conflict and one of them is Hamas, it is their responsibility to deliver on the assurances that they provide representing their side. I would – I’m not going to disagree with your characterization that there may be factions involved in these sorts of actions. I’m not going to speak specifically to this one.

But I would also point you to the fact that in 2009 and in 2012, there were negotiated conclusions to a conflict in Gaza in which Hamas represented the side of the Palestinian factions under --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MODERATOR: I’ll just finish. But we certainly know – I think it’s important to note there’s a great deal that we don’t know here. There are a lot of reports from what’s happening on the ground as we indicated, as is indicated in the statement. Every indication points to a violation, of course, by Hamas. But the specifics, those are still details we’re all learning. I don't know if that answers your question (inaudible). Okay.

QUESTION: Can you just tell us whether (inaudible) to the extent that you know the details? I understand it’s in flux, but we don’t know the details. You know more than we do because you have communication. (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t personally have any more detail beyond, I think, what’s been put out. I mean, there are reports in the press that the attack may have taken place through a tunnel. I don't know that to be the case. But I also – I don't know that that’s not true. I mean, what we basically know is that two Israelis were killed. The Israelis have said that one of their military personnel was abducted. They have not said anything about whether that person was wounded or anything about that person at all, so I think we will take our cue on kind of providing details on the attack from the Israelis, and I just haven’t seen much more than that come out officially at this point.

QUESTION: The Palestinians (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. I mean, I guess I would also add that pretty soon after these incidents, the Israelis declared that the ceasefire was effectively terminated and reconstituted their ground operations inside Gaza. And reports indicate, and we have no reason to disagree with them, that there have been many people killed in subsequent operations that have taken place in and around Rafah, so --

STAFF: And a question – do you have a question?

QUESTION: Just a very quick question because I’m messed up on the time zones here: How long was the ceasefire in place? What time did all the attacks happen?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It was in the – we believe it was in the 9 o’clock hour. The ceasefire began at 8:00. So I don’t want to give a more exact time than that, but pretty soon after the ceasefire officially began.

QUESTION: Thanks. Could you characterize a bit the discussions with the Qataris and the Turks? What are they saying? They’re the ones who are seen as having influence in Hamas.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, I think as [Moderator] said, the focus, overriding focus of those conversations since we’ve been on the plane has been on using the influence that they have and the leverage that they have to try to secure the release of the Israeli soldier. There has been some discussion about where things go from here, but there’s a much more acute concern, which is the life of this soldier who has been abducted. And we’ve urged them, implored them to use their influence to do whatever they can to get that soldier returned, because one, we’re very concerned, obviously, about the life of a soldier; but two, because we think that absent that, the risk of this continuing to escalate and lead to further loss of life is very high.

QUESTION: Were either of you with the Secretary when he first found out that the ceasefire had been violated, like, in the room? And can you describe his actions or reactions – what?

MODERATOR: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Okay. What did he immediately say or do? I mean, I’m sure he was disappointed and maybe surprised, but just if you could characterize what his immediate reaction was.

QUESTION: And how did he find – how did he learn of it?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I mean, I guess I saw the report online and --

QUESTION: You saw it (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. And printed it and walked into his cabin and told him what had happened. And he immediately grasped the severity of the situation and got on the phone and started making calls, both to try to find out what had happened and – with regard to the Israelis, to offer condolences on at least the reports and at that point – which were not yet confirmed when we first saw them online – and then to start the process of piecing together what comes next in terms of trying to secure the release of the soldier once it became clear that there was a soldier abducted, but there was nothing more sort of dramatic or exciting than that. But he pretty quickly and pretty clearly realized that this was a critical situation and began making phone calls.

QUESTION: And at the risk of being dramatic, did he like throw something or like, “Oh my God,” or what?

PARTICIPANT: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Oh, okay.

QUESTION: Who was the first call?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So the way this works is you request calls. You don’t just dial these people directly. And I think the first people that he asked to speak to were Prime Minister Netanyahu and – what’s that?

MODERATOR: Serry.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Prime Minister Netanyahu, Robert Serry from the UN and I think pretty soon thereafter Foreign Minister al-Attiyah and Davutoglu once it became clear that there was a missing soldier.

QUESTION: So there was a call to Netanyahu, then Serry --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Look, I don’t remember the exact order. I think what we did was we knew he needed to talk to all those people, and then the order in which they come through is the order in which you do them. But we knew we needed to talk to all of them in short order.

MODERATOR: Anyways – okay.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MODERATOR: So we’ll land soon and keep you updated.

QUESTION: Thank you.



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