Virtual Media Briefing: Addressing the Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza

Thursday, April 11, 2024
Mahmoud Issa/Reuters

Secretary General, Amnesty International

Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

President, Refugees International

Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations


Deputy Editor, Foreign Affairs

CFR experts Steven A. Cook and David J. Scheffer join Amnesty International’s Agnes Callamard and Refugee International’s Jeremy Konyndyk to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

BRANNEN: Hi, everybody. Thanks so much for joining us today. We’re here to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. And the timing could not be more urgent. We had just yesterday Samantha Power, the head of USAID, saying that famine is no longer looming in northern Gaza, but it’s actually underway. And under pressure from the Biden administration, Israel has announced that it will increase the amount of aid getting into Gaza, but it’s unclear yet if that change is being felt on the ground. And meanwhile, last week’s deadly strike against the World Food Kitchen workers revealed just how dangerous it is to do the humanitarian work that needs to be done, and that’s so desperately needed.  

So to discuss all this, we have an excellent panel that can really get at these issues from a number of different angles. We can talk about policy, international law, the logistics of humanitarian relief, and human rights. So I’m going to introduce our panel quickly, and then we’ll get to questions. First, we have Steven Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies here at CFR. Also on the line, we have Jeremy Konyndyk, who’s the head of Refugees International, and has decades of experience working on humanitarian crises. We have David Scheffer, who’s one of the foremost experts on international law, and was the United States’ first ambassador-at-large for war crimes during the Clinton administration. And finally, we have Agnès Callamard, secretary-general of Amnesty International. Thank you all so much for joining us today and taking the time. 

OK, I’m going to kick things off and ask a couple of questions. And then I’m going to hand it over to everyone on the line so that you all get an opportunity to make use of these, like, array of experts that we’ve got here and get your questions in as well.  

Jeremy, I thought I would start with you to really give us a lay of the land and tell us how you would characterize the threat of famine in Gaza today, and what the overall food picture looks like as well. 

KONYNDYK: So, in my view, famine is underway. I think Administrator Power was correct in how she characterized it earlier this week in her testimony for Congress. There has not yet been a formal famine declaration. I think what’s important to understand about a formal declaration is that that is always a lagging factor. It’s a—the declarations are retroactive. So they are only made after a pretty intensive period of data analysis. And so that—what it means, functionally, is by the time you have a declaration the famine has already been underway for quite some time. And that was the case, for example, in Somalia in 2011, one of only two declared famines that we’ve seen so far this century. Half the people who died in that family had died by the time the declaration was made. 

That tells us, I think, a few important things. One, the trajectory that we’re seeing in Gaza is a trajectory that is on course for a declaration. How quickly that declaration will come, I—you know, depends on a mix of technical and political factors. But more importantly, what it tells us is that the famine conditions that that will ultimately confirm are already in place. And that is clear in the data that we see so far. The entire population of Gaza, per the latest analysis that came out a few weeks ago—the entire population of Gaza is in IPC phase 3, or above. So think of the IPC famine scale similar to something like the hurricane scale, that people are familiar with. A cat three is a pretty strong hurricane. By the famine scale, a cat five is famine. So this is effectively a category five hurricane, a category five event that is beginning to—beginning to hit Gaza now.  

And I would liken the phase we’re at now to sort of, like, the early bands of a category five hurricane beginning to make landfall. So the eyewall has not made landfall yet, but the storm is making landfall, and its impacts are being felt. And what that means is we’re not in prepare phase anymore. We’re not in phase to avert. We’re now in phase where we have to deal with the disaster and we have to contain the disaster. And what I think is really worrying about that is there is nothing like the kind of humanitarian operation that is required currently active in Gaza today. It is not possible in Gaza today to mount the kind of counter-famine operation that will be required to get this back under control.  

One thing that we know from past famines, and I’ve worked on famine and pre-famine situations both in the NGO sector and during my time in the U.S. government, we know the famines gain a momentum. The longer that you allowed them to go unchecked, they gain—they gain a momentum. And it gets exponentially more difficult to contain the damage the longer you wait to do so. So I think we are at the cusp of an exponential turning point in Gaza, just in terms of the hunger statistics, in terms of the child malnutrition statistics. So we know—humanitarians who’ve been around these situations before, we know the patterns we’re seeing in Gaza right now and we know where they lead. And that’s why humanitarians have been running around with their hair on fire since December, when the first projections came out that first raised the specter of famine.  

And I think what’s really concerning about the trajectory—one of the things that’s concerning about U.S. policy here, is normally when you would get a projection of potential famine from the IPC—and the U.S.’s own proprietary systems are telling them the same thing, by the way—that is the moment to trigger maximum emergency. That is the moment to say we have to put every tool on the table to prevent this from happening. And that hasn’t happened. It is not clear that the U.S. government has a coherent plan for how to contain this famine. It is not clear who’s in charge of that. Most of the energy seems to be dedicated right now to sideshows, like this pier and airdrops, which are not unhelpful but they’re nowhere near the sort of operation that would be needed to contain the famine.  

And the humanitarian community has been saying for quite some time there is no way to do that. There was no way to get this famine under control without a ceasefire. And the reason for that is that a famine is not something you can fight from the back of a truck. It’s not something you can airdrop—you can’t airdrop an anti-famine operation out of an airplane. When the population gets to the point of famine, that means that it’s not just one-off kind of aid deliveries. You need static service provision. You need presence. You need access. Fighting a famine is a comprehensive operation. It’s not just food operation. It’s a food operation, yes, but it’s a nutrition operation. You need nutrition treatment centers, very specialized medical care and nutrition treatment centers to bring people back from the brink who are—who are on the cusp of death.  

Those photos that have come out of Gaza of severely malnourished children dying in, you know, visible, extreme malnutrition, it is possible to bring people back—not at that point, but a bit before that point—but it takes a really intensive medical service provision to do that. That is not really possible at scale in Gaza today. A lot of the people who die in past famines have died of disease. So you don’t just need food and nutrition. You need medical care, because when someone is malnourished, their whole immune system weakens and diseases that wouldn’t normally kill them, can kill them. So you need significant medical care available to treat those opportunistic infections. Of course, the entire medical system in Gaza today is shattered. So that’s not possible without a ceasefire.  

And then you need water. Malnutrition is greatly worsened if people do not have clean water to drink. And of course, unclean water and poor sanitation are a major vector for disease spread. And so you put all that together and you think about Gaza today in the state of Gaza today, you could not design in a lab a better set of conditions for the emergence of famine, a more perfect set of conditions for the emergence of famine, than what we see in Gaza today. And that is why people like Alex de Waal, who is probably the world’s foremost expert and researcher on famine and the history of famine, when he looks at what’s happening in Gaza he says: This is on track to be the most intense famine—on a sort of pound for pound basis—the most intense famine the world has seen since World War II. And I think that’s accurate. And that is why both, you know, the trajectory is so concerning, but also the absence of any visible plan for how this ends.  

BRANNEN: A quick follow up. My understanding is it’s not necessarily in terms of the size or scale that this famine is so concerning, but it’s really the speed of onset. Could you just talk a little bit about that? How quickly Gaza has gone from no famine conditions to the brink?  

KONYNDYK: Yeah. And that’s one of the things that is really distinctive and unique here. The size of this famine—I mean, Gaza has 2.3 million, 2.4 million people. It’s not a huge place. You know, more people will die in the famine that is looming in Sudan than will die in Gaza’s famine, because Sudan is a massively huge country. But when you look at it, as I said, on a pound-for-pound basis, what is so unique about Gaza when you look at the analysis that has come out of the IPC system, the entire population is in a food security crisis. That is fairly unprecedented. Even in Somalia in 2011, it was not the entirety or even the majority of the population that was in—that was in phase four and phase five.  

And it’s also the speed, and also the starting point. So Somalia, again, 2011 is a useful reference point. Somalia had a famine develop there. But Somalia struggles, even in, you know, kind of their baseline normal years, they struggle with a lot of chronic food insecurity and a lot of chronic malnutrition. That really wasn’t the case in Gaza. Gaza didn’t have fabulous food security, but it was not anything like, you know, steady state Somalia situation in terms of nutrition and food security. So they started from a higher point. There was no natural precipitating factor. The 2011 famine in Somalia was sparked in large part by several failed rainy seasons, resulting in a multidecade record drought. That’s absent here. There’s not a natural precipitating factor.  

It is purely manmade. And the Somalia famine then, because of that origin, developed slowly over the course of about a year and a half. This has developed over the course of less than half a year. And, you know, the initial famine projections in December, it was only three months in by that point. So kind of starting from a higher place, going to a much more pervasive, comprehensive level of deprivation at a population level, and doing so much more quickly. And that trajectory is just hugely concerning. 

BRANNEN: Yeah. OK. Agnès, I want to go to you to talk about what’s going on in Gaza. But I know in your writing you’ve also focused on the response from the United States, the response at the U.N., and what’s at stake not just in Gaza but for the sort of broader rules-based order. If you could respond to Jeremy and talk about that bigger picture, as you see it. 

CALLAMARD: Thank you very much. I think Jeremy highlighted very, very well a situation of engineered famine, a situation of manmade famine, in a way that we have not seen ever, at least since World War II. And that is the last example of repeated multiple violations of international law, the indiscriminate and the targeting of civilians, eradicating entire families, the destruction of infrastructures including health, school, all kinds of medical, cemeteries. Up to 70 percent of Gaza infrastructures have been—have been destroyed. The highest number of killings of journalists. The highest number of killings of humanitarian workers. The highest rate of harm to civilians ever recorded. The list is—(audio break)—collective punishment, the prevention of access to humanitarian assistance, as Jeremy as well described. 

It’s important to insist on the fact that this is not any kind of humanitarian crisis. This is, at heart, a crisis—a political crisis that is reflecting military and political choices. Military choices by the Israeli authorities and political choices by the United States and the allies of Israel. And the reason why I am arguing that what we are witnessing in Gaza is international law on its deathbed. It’s not just because of the severity of the violations, even though that’s already an extremely good indicator. It is not just because a number of actors and the ICJ have raised the risk of genocide, and some have actually said we are in a situation of genocide. It is not just because all of the international community is failing to prevent genocide, which is an international obligation. It is because all of those incredible violations are being justified. 

And that, to tell you the truth, often leaves me speechless. It is justified by Israeli authorities. And it has been justified for the longest period of time by the United States. When you start justifying that accumulation of violation of international law, you are emptying international law out of its contents, beginning with the principle of humanity, and many others. So the fact that right now we are confronting a situation where a couple of actors are using their power and their influence to justify the annihilation of international principle placed in—you know, that we came up with in 1948, that is, to me, the reason why I am feeling very strongly that we are looking at an extremely dramatic moment for the international community, and a possible change of era. 

BRANNEN: OK. There’s a lot there. I’m going to go to David, who also has the international law experience and background to respond to some of that. How do you look at how Israel is conducting this war? What do you bring to bear when you think about that, in terms of what it’s obligated to do and whether it’s violating the law? 

SCHEFFER: Well, first, I think Agnès’ views are very, very important to take into account. We’ve had an evolution over the last six months in this war between Israel and Hamas that strains the limitations and the potential of international law. At first, one could look at the conflict back in October and clearly state there’s a right of self-defense, there is the right of Israel as a combatant force to hit a Hamas as a combatant force, and to respond to what happened on October 7, which itself could clearly be argued was a genocidal act by Hamas on Israel. 

And that means that with every military action that the Israeli Defense Force takes against Hamas, they have to meet the demands of international law, including international humanitarian law. Every single strike has to meet, you know, requirements of proportionality, military necessity, distinction between civilians and combatants, and a simple principle of humanity. Those are the four basic requirements. So when a military operation is underway, one would expect that, particularly back at headquarters, all of those principles are being adhered to with every consideration of every airstrike, every artillery strike, et cetera. And this is very difficult. It’s urban warfare. But guess what? It has to be done. There is not an excuse that it’s urban warfare and you can somehow slide over these principles. 

Even if the Israeli Defense Force, as it has claimed, can justify so many of these individual strikes as being in compliance with international humanitarian law—that is what they say—I think we’ve got to recognize that international law has a gap that we need to start thinking about filling. And it is the priority that one must attach to what is the totality of the civilian death and destruction that will be the result of a combat situation? I mean, combat situations evolve day by day, of course. But commanders back at headquarters need to be looking at the totality of what could be the end result here. And if the end result is essentially an unacceptable casualty rate of innocent civilians and of their property, then I think you have to—you have to step back and say, well, sure, I can—I might be able to justify a particular strike today, but at the end of the day what does it result in? What is the end result of days and weeks and months of separate strikes? Many of which I would argue probably cannot be justified under international humanitarian law.  

So you’re in a—you’re in a difficult situation. And, I mean, we could talk a lot about the situation Hamas is in, as a violator of international law. We could go on a long time about that. But when—if we’re talking about the Israeli Defense Force, I do think there’s been a breakdown here of how to pursue warfare in a manner that is legitimate, not only on a daily basis but in the long term as well. You know, let me just mention very quickly, Kate, that despite all of its faults, the U.S. military in recent years has undertaken what we call a civilian harm mitigation study and strategy with the Department of Defense, and the Department of State involved.  

And the whole purpose of that is actually to recognize that warfare is evolving, and that we have to prioritize the fate of civilians in warfare. Not just combatant versus combatant, but what is the fate of civilians? And how do we build that into the policies that we propagate? What I—and I’ll just finish with this—that being only tangentially involved in looking at those discussions, I noticed that after October 7 it was kind of difficult to kind of meld those concepts of civilian harm mitigation into what we saw unfolding in the Middle East/ And where the United States is an ally of Israel and providing the munitions, et cetera, it seemed as if some of those principles of civilian harm mitigation simply were not holding up in—with the severity of what was occurring in Gaza. 

BRANNEN: I’m going to go to Steven next to talk a little bit about U.S. policy, because obviously the Biden administration has watched this unfold, has observed some of the things that David has mentioned, and over the last two weeks, maybe a little bit longer, it has shifted in policy quite a bit. But, Steven, I’d love for you to describe how big a shift you think that is in terms of policy, and do you—if you think they’ve finally gotten Netanyahu’s attention. 

COOK: Well, thanks for the question, Kate. And good evening to everybody from Delphi, Greece.  

You know, just a couple of reactions to what has been said. I’m not an expert in international humanitarian law, but some reactions to some of the comments before, and then I’ll get into American foreign policy. I think it speaks to the direction of this conflict and the position of advocacy organizations that not until David we didn’t hear the word “Hamas.” And surely Hamas has some culpability for the humanitarian situation in Gaza. First, in bringing this war upon the people of Gaza through its horrific attacks on October 7, and then I think the credible evidence that Hamas has commandeered whatever aid has come into the Gaza Strip for its own political purposes.  

Second, I am—I find it hard to believe that the—that the conflict in Gaza alone has broken international law. There is a litany of conflicts throughout the world which the international community has failed to apply international law. We are on the cusp of a new era in in the global order. We know what’s past. We don’t know what will be born yet. And this may be one of those—one of those things that contributes to these changes. But I find it hard to believe this conflict alone has broken international law. As I said, we have a long list of those things.  

And then to David’s point about the breakdown within the IDF, I actually don’t think it’s a breakdown. I think that there has been actually a conscious effort on the part of the IDF to loosen the rules of engagement, to engage in that kind of warfare, to send a very strong message to Hezbollah, to Hamas, to Iran how—the fate that they would—that they would experience should significant escalations occur. I think it’s been an absolute intentional effort on the part—and, of course, none of this is to negate the extraordinarily horrific humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip. But I think to provide a kind of broader perspective on this.  

Now, to your question on U.S. foreign policy, I think, by and large, the administration has shifted rhetorically. We’ve heard what Samantha Power has said. We have heard what the president has said. Certainly there is an effort here to shift, at least for public consumption, and demonstrate for the American people and others that while the United States remains supportive of Israel and its overall war aims, the United States is deeply concerned about the way in which Israel’s military operations have unfolded. At the same time they are saying this, there is approval of weapons transfers to the IDF under the threshold in which Congress would have to approve these kinds of things.  

So I think it has been a rhetorical shift, which doesn’t mean that it’s been an entire shift. I do think it has gotten the attention of the Israeli government. The Israeli press, the Jewish press, which not of people pay attention to, is reporting today that the Israelis have made a commitment for 500 trucks to get into the Gaza Strip on a daily basis going forward. We’ll see whether then actually occurs. But nevertheless, there is at least a public commitment on the part of the Israeli authorities to do that. And, hopefully, that will provide some relief for the people of the Gaza Strip. But, as we know, much of this is late already.  

But overall, I don’t see a very significant shift in in U.S. policy. If only because what we’re seeing is rhetorical, not a very significant shift on the ground. And I think that, by and large, when you talk to American officials, they themselves don’t necessarily believe that their efforts to revitalize the Palestinian Authority and push forward a two-state solution are things that are—that are realistic. But are things that they feel that they must do under the circumstances, but that are not actually realistic goals. 

BRANNEN: To follow up, do you think there’s a trigger out there that would take the Biden administration that far, where they would start to condition aid? 

COOK: Well, I think that they laid—I think they laid it down. And I think that there—the one place where there has been a significant shift is on Rafah. Whereas three weeks ago, a month ago the Biden administration was saying, we need a clear and credible plan. They had that virtual meeting with Israeli officials in which there was clearly no clear and credible plan to protect civilians in a Rafah operation. And recently, the national security adviser essentially ruled out American support for a Rafah operation. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t going to be a Rafah operation. I think that this government—I think that the—this government or any Israeli government that one can imagine frames this—along with the Israeli public—frames is conflict in existential terms. And as a result, there is broad support for Israel’s war aims amongst the—within the Israeli public, overwhelming support for it. And it would be a political defeat for any Israeli government not to—to walk away from the Gaza Strip leaving the Hamas leadership, in particular, intact. 

BRANNEN: OK. I’m going to squeeze in a few follow ups before we go to the—to the other callers—the other people on the line. I forget what we call people on Zoom. (Laughs.) But to Jeremy, I think an important thing I want to be sure to cover is, if it’s too late to prevent famine what now has to be done in order to contain it? And how—Steven just mentioned 500 trucks. What’s the—how scaled up does it have to get to make a difference? 

KONYNDYK: Yeah. Well, again, I would start by saying the threshold condition for containing this famine is a ceasefire. Without that, the sort of operation that is required is just not possible. And that is—you know, that is not an ethical judgment or something on my part. That’s an operational judgment on my part. And that’s an operation—that’s the operational assessment of the professional humanitarian community. And I think that the strike on World Central Kitchen underscores that. There was a strike just today that hit a UNICEF convoy that, again, underscores that. You cannot scale an aid operation, even an insufficient aid operation, under the current conditions in Gaza. And so without a ceasefire, the scale will not be possible.  

If there is a ceasefire, what that would then need to look like is what we have rolled out—you know, what the U.S. government and the humanitarian community rolls out routinely and knows how to do in other contexts. And that is you roll out a really heavy-footprint, large-scale aid operation, that—so just to give an example of one that I worked on for the U.S. government—when South Sudan was on the verge of famine in 2014, you know, we looked at every red area on the map. And in every red area on the map, we wanted to make sure that we had some humanitarian partner that was providing water and sanitation services, some partner that was providing food services, some partner that was providing intensive malnutrition support, and that there were health services available.  

And if we didn’t have that, we needed to get a partner. But that was all about access and presence. The way we fought that was access and presence. You cannot get access and presence right now in Gaza. And, you know, the reasons for that are not a mystery. The reasons for that—and you know, I’ll differ a bit with Steven. I think that the—you know, the operational organizations that I talk to regularly are not—their principal concern is not that Hamas is blocking them from doing that, or that Hamas is diverting their aid. Their principal concern is that the Israeli government and the Israeli military are blocking their access throughout Gaza. And their staff literally do not feel safe to move. They feel that Gaza is a free-fire zone.  

And I think the World Central Kitchen strike, which was—you know, World Central Kitchen, of all the NGOs in Gaza, had the closest, tightest, most coordinated relationship with the Israeli government, with the IDF. Was on an approved movement that was coordinated with the IDF. And was still struck. And so the—you know, the rest of the NGOs look at that and go, like, if that can happen to that organization under those circumstances, none of us are safe. So there is, I think, just a fundamental incompatibility between the way that the IDF has conducted the war.  

And, you know, David talked about the—kind of the aggregate effect, the aggregate impact that this is having on the civilian population. I think you can look at the—you know, the humanitarian access is a component part of that. It is not possible for humanitarians to have the access and the presence that they need to have. So I think we need to stop conceiving of what needs to happen in terms of truck counts. That is not the right proxy. The right proxy is, are humanitarians able to set up feeding centers in Gaza City? Are there active therapeutic nutrition centers? Are kids able to get, you know, nasal malnutrition therapy at scale in Gaza City? Is the water working in—you know, are people able to access clean water? 

Right now, the Israeli government—one of the things that they block is chlorine. Well the standard humanitarian intervention when you have a broken water system is to distribute chlorine tabs to households to purify their water. NGOs can’t get those in right now. So, you know, as long as that remains the ethos of the operation, the famine will continue. 


COOK: Well, of course, you would have a ceasefire and be able to get international aid into Gaza if Hamas would agree to a ceasefire. 

KONYNDYK: Well, we have called on—(inaudible)— 

COOK: I mean, and that is by all diplomatic—(inaudible)—the problem there. 

KONYNDYK: I think— 

BRANNEN: I’m going to jump in— 

KONYNDYK: I think we have a—can I just?  

BRANNEN: Yeah, go ahead, Jeremy. 

KONYNDYK: I mean, I don’t know that the leadership of Hamas or the leadership of the Israeli government really wants to end this. And— 

COOK: I think that clear, except for the fact that any number of times that a ceasefire proposal has been put on the table, everybody walks away because Hamas will not agree to the ceasefire. So when we say we need a ceasefire, we need to understand exactly what’s— 


COOK: —exactly what’s happening here. So this is not to negate or excuse anything that the Israeli government has done, but to give a fuller account of what the actual situation is in the Gaza Strip and where the problems are. 

KONYNDYK: Look, I think there are plenty of obstacles to getting the ceasefire. I agree. As an operational judgment, without a ceasefire it won’t happen. And there are a lot of things that the Israeli government, even short of a ceasefire, could be doing differently to facilitate humanitarian— 

COOK: Well—undoubtedly the case.  

KONYNDYK: —aid. Yeah.  

COOK: But you put a tremendous emphasis on the ceasefire. And so let’s recognize the fact that Hamas is the primary obstacle to that. 

BRANNEN: I did also—bringing—Steven brought up Hamas earlier. I’m going to—sorry to put Jeremy on the spot again—but in terms of getting food to who needs it in Gaza, what role is Hamas playing there? Is there is—there any reporting that you’re hearing about that? 

KONYNDYK: So there is very little—you know, because there is so little access and free movement for NGOs right now, the aid delivery has been pretty minimal. That is part of the problem. You know, it is hard—in in a similar way to how it was hard in Somalia in 2011 to know, you know, not every—not every armed person, or every, you know, military-age male has a badge saying who they’re affiliated with. What is striking to me I think every time there is a convoy looted, the official line from the Israeli government has been that Hamas looted the convoy. You know, to my eyes and to the reporting that I hear from humanitarian colleagues, what’s often happening there is that is members of the community, so-called self-distributing the aid, because it is so rare that they get a delivery and they’re so desperate for it.  

So I think it’s hard to parse, I am sure there are instances where that has happened. It’s also not something that when I talk to the humanitarian operators in—you know, operating in Gaza, even privately and informally, they’re not pointing to Hamas as the principal obstacle to their ability to operate. I think as well, the more that you degrade the presence and the capacity of the professional humanitarian operators, the more that advantages Hamas. You don’t want to leave Hamas as the only game in town. But if the NGOs can’t operate, if UNRWA can’t operate—you know, whatever one thinks of UNRWA’s merits as an organization, I think they are—I would think they’re—even if you don’t like them very much, it’s preferable them than Hamas. The more that those alternatives to Hamas are degraded, the more that leaves Hamas as the only game in town. 

BRANNEN: Yeah. OK. I’m going to— 

CALLAMARD: Can I—can I just? I think I just want to make a point and not rewrite history here. With regard to the call for ceasefire, let’s recall that the one country that has opposed it repeatedly within the Security Council and within the General Assembly—within the Security Council, that has been the United States. Within the General Assembly, the United States and Israel. So while I’m hearing that Hamas is responsible, blah, blah, blah, let’s not rewrite history. The call for ceasefire has been opposed for most of the six months by Israel and by the United States. 

COOK: Yet, the United States is the main diplomatic actor trying to work with the Egyptians, the Qataris, the Israelis, and all the— 

CALLAMARD: Only for the last—only for the last one month. 

COOK: So it’s hard to—it’s hard to make the case that the United States— 

CALLAMARD: I’m sorry, there has been—has been going on for six months. 

COOK: —is opposed to a ceasefire in that case, talking about rewriting history, and speechlessness here. 

CALLAMARD: There has been 33,000 people killed over the last few weeks. If the United States come to the ceasefire— 

COOK: Nobody’s debating that, but the idea that the United States has not been working towards a ceasefire is, quite honestly, absurd. 

CALLAMARD: Let’s not rewrite history here. There are plenty—plenty of evidence that the United States stopped a ceasefire repeatedly by using its veto power at the Security Council. That cannot be denied. 

COOK: That’s a—that’s a political statement, not a statement of fact. 

BRANNEN: I’m going to jump in here. I’m going to jump in here. 

CALLAMARD: This is not true. (Inaudible)—the U.S. did not use its veto power at the Security Council to oppose the ceasefire? Come on. I mean, this is—this is—(laughs)—you know, this is a statement of fact. And that it opposed also during General Assembly debates on the ceasefire? That’s a statement of fact. 

BRANNEN: I’m going to just jump in here. 

COOK: Yet, the CIA director continues to work towards a ceasefire.  

BRANNEN: I’m just going to jump in here. This is a super important debate. I do want to let the people on the line have a chance to ask questions. So I’m going to hand it over to Krista to see if anyone would like to jump in and ask one of our panelists a question, following up on what we’ve been talking about. 

OPERATOR: Absolutely. 

(Gives queuing instructions.) 

We’ll take our first question from Peter Baker. 

Q: Thanks for doing this. Peter Baker from the New York Times.  

I’m just asking just a quick question about what we know of what has happened in the week since President Biden’s last call with Netanyahu, when he did suggest that American policy was conditioned on changes in humanitarian aid. I’ve heard contrary/conflicting information about whether more aid has gone in—everything from a hundred trucks a day to 400 trucks a day. Do we have a sense of whether more trucks have gone in it? And has it changed on the ground in the seven days since that call? 

COOK: Well, Peter, just—thanks for the question. Just based on what I have been reading in the Israeli press, is that there is a commitment for 500 trucks daily to go into the Gaza Strip. Whether that either will happen or is happening remains to be seen. 

KONYNDYK: I would say that so far there’s less change than meets the eye. There have been a number of things announced. The truck numbers—and we’ve been trying to unwind this too, because you do see different figures. It appears that some version of the Israeli—the Israelis announcing truck numbers once they have been kind of cleared by the Israeli government to enter. But that’s different than trucks that can actually enter. And so the numbers getting in have not changed greatly. The numbers going through Israeli inspection have increased somewhat. But, again, a big part of the problem within Gaza right now, as I talked about earlier, is the ability to freely move and safely access and be able to do distribution. So the—you know, the internal bottlenecks that have—that have been created by the course of the conflict are still in place and are still a huge impediment to aid getting in and getting around. And humanitarians still don’t have access internally in the way that they need. throughout the territory.  

The announcement of a port—the port of Ashdod being open to humanitarian traffic, it’s still not entirely clear what that’s going to mean in practice. And initially, that was paired with the Erez crossing. Erez is traditionally a pedestrian crossing not a cargo crossing. And so recently, I mean, just today, I think, the Israeli government said that they’re going to build a different crossing. Not entirely clear what that means or where that would be. There was a crossing at Karni that had been a cargo crossing. It was closed in, I think, 2011. Rehabbing and reopening something like that would be better than—kind of, from a throughput perspective—would be better than Erez. But it will take some time.  

And, yeah, so there has not been a huge—a huge change yet. And there’s been nothing announced about, for example, changing the inspection—the inspection regime, that prevents things like chlorine tabs from getting in. So I think, you know, there have been—there was a flurry of announcements from the Israeli government after that phone call with the president. That isn’t yet translating into a significant change to posture on the ground.  

BRANNEN: Krista, next question. 

Q: Thank you. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Rachel Oswald. 

Q: Hi. Thank you for doing this. I have more of a political question. So it seems like to me, and I’m a reporter on Capitol Hill, that almost all Democrats have come out in favor of a ceasefire, or at least using very strong language condemning Israel’s actions towards civilians. But the continued, I guess, firewall of Republican support, you know, what role does that play, do you assess, to anyone that wants to comment on it, for the Israeli government’s actions? Because right now, Republicans aren’t getting a lot of questions or pressure on the humanitarian issue. It’s mostly coming to Democrats and President Biden. And then Republicans, it seems, are just not being asked about their feelings about what’s happening. 

COOK: Well, I do policy, not politics. But I think it’s clear that the debate within the Democratic Party has intensified. And I think it reflects the shifting nature of politics—the politics of Israel and the United States.  

BRANNEN: OK. Next question. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Garrett Mitchell. 

Q: Thanks very much.  

Want to try to understand, as best we can, the balance between what I sense is a quantitative approach to humanitarian aid versus, I’ll call it, a qualitative, more strategic and comprehensive, that I think Jeremy has described. And so to put it in simple terms, you know, that if we were to double the number of trucks that both theoretically or actually could have entry, unless and until we’ve fixed the strategic and the qualitative side of the equation, more trucks isn’t the answer. A, is that a fair way to describe it? And, B, if it is, who, if at all, is in charge of making that plan, and execution of that plan, doable? 

KONYNDYK: I do think that’s a fair way to describe it. You know, trucks is not an irrelevant indicator, but it’s not a good proxy for humanitarian conditions, and for the quality of the humanitarian aid that’s getting in. You know, if you think of this as a water analogy, if you’re trying to get more water flow to your house, you don’t start by building the pipes furthest upstream, you want—and then kind of turning on the water. You want to make sure that the pipe where it enters your house has the capacity to handle the aid, and that—then the water system in your house is working, and it can actually get throughout your house.  

And what happens right now is a bit like you’ve got a blockage in most of the pipes in your house and you’re turning the water on upstream first. Well, then that water is not going to go anywhere and you’re going to have a real, you know, backup and a real problem. We do need more aid getting in. We do need more ways for aid to get in. But without distribution, without the kind of NGO and humanitarian and U.N. presence throughout Gaza to do ongoing large-scale distribution, without that presence without that access, then just turning on the upstream flow doesn’t do you much good. And that’s kind of the situation right now.  

And that’s why, you know, if you hear humanitarians talk, there’s a lot of pushback on looking at truck numbers as the right metric for judging that. I think the right metric for judging that, going back to the example I used earlier from South Sudan, is, are there partners who can provide the services and the support that’s needed in the places where it’s needed? Are they accessing those places regularly? Are they able to safely operate programs and delivery infrastructure in those places? And is the aid getting there to where it needs to go? And are we, as a result of that, seeing the numbers stop moving in the wrong direction and start moving in the right direction, in terms of malnutrition, in terms of hunger, in terms of disease? Right now, none of that’s in place.  

And, you know, I fear—and kind of part of my concern with U.S. policy right now, is there is this obsession with truck numbers, and there’s obsession with—you know, a lot of the effort is going into this port and these airdrops. Which are not—again, as I said, not unhelpful, but they’re kind of a sideshow to the key things that really need to happen first. And that is about ensuring that NGOs and humanitarian aid groups and, you know, the Palestinian Red Crescent, and so on, can safely operate. That they can move without fear that they’re going to be struck. That they can set up the programs that they need. That they can move the people in that they need to run the services. Right now, none of that is possible. 

BRANNEN: Do we have any more questions? 

OPERATOR: We don’t have any—oh, I apologize. A hand just—and it went back down. (Laughs.) 

(Gives queuing instructions.) 

It looks like we have another question from Garrett Mitchell. Or—his hand went back down. All right. We’re going to go to Susan. 

BRANNEN: Maybe to me, Kate. 

Q: Wait, can you hear me? 

BRANNEN: Oh, wait, Susan. Yes.  

Q: All right. Within the past couple of days there was a news article that the one of the Hamas negotiator’s sons and grandchildren were targeted and killed. And his statement appeared to imply that the Israelis did that as a way of influencing him in terms of ceasefire negotiations. Do you think that’s accurate? 

COOK: I have absolutely no idea whether that is accurate, but it is entirely consistent with Israeli policy to go after the Hamas leadership and anybody connected to it. So whereas there’s no hard evidence one way or the other, is not something that would surprise me. But I would not want to make an affirmative declaration that that absolutely is what happened and that the Israelis specifically targeted him. But this is something the Israelis have done in the past. 

CALLAMARD: And to the extent that the children of this Hamas leader were civilians not engaged in any kind of combat, and that they were deliberately targeted by the Israeli authorities, that will amount most probably to a war crime. Unless they were engaged in combatant activities, or unless they were killed as part of a collateral damage, which seems very unlikely. 

BRANNEN: To follow up on that, David, one question I’ve had, as debate around Israeli conduct of war has unfolded, and obviously Hamas’s war crimes as well, is where will—where will this matter? Where will these crimes ever be adjudicated? Could you talk a little bit about that, about whether that’s even a possibility?  

SCHEFFER: Sure. There are—Kate, there are numerous forums. Some are already stood up in good form. One is the International Court of Justice. There’s a case there brought by South Africa and other—a number of other nations against Israel, under the Geneva—under the Genocide Convention. And that is underway. So that’s one forum where these charges are being adjudicated, and Israel is defending its position before the International Court of Justice.  

Another one is the International Criminal Court, which has jurisdiction over Gaza. Remember, the State of Palestine is a state party of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Israel is not. But under that statute, if one of your nationals actually commits any three of—or four of the baskets of crimes under the Rome Statute, then the court has jurisdiction. And that would include Hamas’ actions on Israeli territory on October 7, but it gives the prosecutor of the ICC jurisdiction over what is happening in Gaza. Both with respect to the Israeli Defense Forces and with respect to Hamas. So there’s a tremendous amount to investigate there. It’s a huge challenge because the war is ongoing.  

But there are other forums. For example, Israeli courts will be adjudicating the Hamas fighters who were captured on October 7-October 8. And they are in detention in Israel, those Hamas fighters. So at some point, there has to be justice rendered with respect to those fighters. And it will likely be in Israeli courts. There’s also other courts in Europe where, ultimately, the principle of what we call universal jurisdiction will probably come into play with respect to any Hamas officials or even Israeli officials who travel and might get caught up in the jurisdiction of those national courts in Europe, with respect to these atrocity crimes—whether it be genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes.  

And then finally, I would just point to a law that was signed into law by President Biden in early January of 2023. And that’s the Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act. And that act extended the jurisdiction of our war crimes law, which was enacted in 1996, amended in 1997, to include individuals who don’t have to be American but who have committed war crimes on foreign territory and arrive on U.S. territory. In the past, it was only if you were an American who committed war crimes or you were a victim—an American victim of war crimes that that law would reach you.  

So in the future, that particular law will also be at issue with respect to Hamas officials as well as potentially Israeli officials who visit the United States and are captured within—not—I don’t want to use that word, “captured”—fall within that—the jurisdiction of that law. But keep in mind that those are cases that have to be brought under the leadership decision of the Department of Justice. They’re not cases that can just be brought by any U.S. attorney, without a very senior decision by the Department of Justice to bring that case. 

BRANNEN: OK. That’s such a helpful lay of the land. Thank you for that.  

Before we wrap up, does anybody want to address anything we haven’t or give any kind of closing comments? 

CALLAMARD: Well, I—you know, if I may, just to follow up on what David just said. Clearly, international justice should be already on the agenda. We are in the middle of still military warfare and political gymnastics around the world. But international justice should be—for many governments around the world—should be where we should really focus our energy if we want to salvage something out of the international system. There has been repeated resolution calling for a ceasefire. They have been violated. There is a call on the part of the ICJ to prevent the crime of genocide. It is being violated. And that comes on top of the violations committed by Hamas, which amount to war crimes, as David has pointed out, and the violations committed by Israel. 

It is really incumbent upon all of the international community to do everything possible to ensure that there is also a judicial and a just response to what is happening. That somehow justice will be delivered to the multiple victims, both in southern Israel and in Gaza. Because if we don’t find a judicial answer as well to what is being committed, we are left with a broken system. We are left with a system that is only responding to the most powerful. We are left with a system that leaves very little hope for, you know, any kind of adjudication over the worst crime possible. That is true for Gaza and southern Israel, as it is true for Ukraine, as it is true for other armed conflict at the moment. It’s really crucial that we find it upon ourselves to preserve what’s left of the judicial capacity of the international system to somehow deliver some kind of truth and justice. 

BRANNEN: OK. Steven, I see your hand is up.  

COOK: Yeah. Not a comment, just a plug for the fact that the Council multidepartment effort, that has included David and a number of other experts, put together in cooperation with and CFR’s Education Department, some of the key definitions related to international law, genocide, apartheid. A lot of these terms have been used in very political ways for advocacy purposes. And this is a real effort to kind of ground them in actual international law and expertise, so that they can be used in ways that are more effective and purposeful. And I think that, you know, if you’re on at any, any moment, and I encourage people to take a look at it. And it’ll help clarify many of these issues. Thanks.  

BRANNEN: OK. Great. I see Jeremy, please feel free to jump in before we wrap up. 

KONYNDYK: Just, yeah, a quick—a quick comment building on what David talked about, about the ICJ case. You know, it will be a long time before we know how that all plays out in the court, of course. But one of the things that is really striking is in the arguments that the Israeli government made in its own defense at the ICJ, and to push back on the notion that it could credibly be accused of genocide or acts of genocide, they pointed to what they claimed were efforts to facilitate humanitarian aid, and as a pretty significant portion of their defense. And I don’t think it’s the view of any humanitarian organization operating in Gaza that that is—that those claims hold up. You know, irrespective of views on the legal case. But the—you know, the obstacles that they have put in place for humanitarian actors, the inspection blockages that continue to this day, the consistent failure to protect humanitarian actors.  

And I think one important piece here is that under international humanitarian law, it is not just a passive please try not to bomb humanitarians. They have an active obligation to protect humanitarian action, that they are failing at. And what is particularly notable about that, and I think notable with respect to the question of intent, is that they do know how to do that. They’ve done it before. They did it in Lebanon in 2006. They established systems during that war to prevent strikes on humanitarian actors, that they have so far refused to establish now. And that is not for lack of understanding that they need to do that. Seniormost U.S. officials have urged them to do that. It’s fallen on deaf ears. Humanitarians have called on them to do that. And I think the World Central Kitchen strike is notable in that context. That it happened because of the failure of systems that groups had been urging the Israeli government for literally months to establish, that they had not established.  

And, you know, there was also a, I think, a rules of engagement element to that too, that I’m not sure with the sort of rules of engagement that the Israeli military seems to be applying you even could have effective deconfliction systems. Because having effective deconfliction requires having a level of a command and control, and kind of checking back on what you’re hitting, and being sure you know what you’re striking, that doesn’t really seem to be in place in standard practice. And that, I think, is how you get something like the World Central Kitchen strike. But not just that strike, 200 other aid workers who were killed before that strike, 400-plus health workers who’ve been killed before that strike. And, you know, there are—there is much that—you know, kind of to the point—the back and forth that Steven and I had earlier—whether or not—you know, wherever you assign the blame for a ceasefire not materializing, there is a lot that the Israeli government could, and any other—you know, most professional militaries would, be doing to prevent those sorts of outcomes that the IDF has not done. 

BRANNEN: OK. Let’s go to David. And this will be the last word before we sign off. 

SCHEFFER: Right. I know I’m right at the end here. I just—without challenging at all the facts of what Jeremy has just very helpfully provided—it might be helpful for the reporters to understand that in Israel’s arguments at the International Court of Justice, the reason they were bringing that point up was essentially to challenge the claim that they have genocidal intent. How could they have genocidal intent if, in fact, they are trying to provide humanitarian aid of some character to the Palestinian people? That was the reason they brought that up. And they sort of characterized why they were doing it to try to blunt what you have to have with a successful genocide charge, which is not only genocidal acts but also the specific intent to destroy all are part of a protected group.  

So I do want to just mention that, in looking at what some of the judges said in their declarations at the provisional measures determination in late January at the International Court of Justice where they talked about the plausibility of it of a genocide situation, they also said that what they’re lacking—some of them said, lacking in their ability to comprehensively analyze this entire situation, was what Hamas had done on October 7. Because the action is not against Hamas. It’s against Israel. So the facts before the court are based on what Israel is doing in Gaza. And some of them said, you know, it would be helpful if the totality of the situation was in front of them—not only the claim of genocide against Israel, but also the claim of genocidal acts against Hamas.  

And, you know, it is interesting. There are more—about 136-or-so states in the world which recognize the state of Palestine. And those that are not Islamic or Arab number about thirty, that are both party to the Genocide Convention and recognize the state of Palestine. And it’s not beyond their capability to bring a case at the ICJ against Hamas, which is part of the state of Palestine no question about it, committing the acts on October 7, and thus bringing that issue before the International Court of Justice. My guess is that if one of those thirty countries, which are not in the Arab world, they’re not in the Islamic world, were to bring that case, what the court would do would be to join both cases and say, OK, now we have a complete picture of what has happened since October 7, and we can look at both Israel’s actions as well as Hamas’ actions, and give a more comprehensive view of the situation of genocide in the Middle East—or, purported genocide in the Middle East. 

BRANNEN: David, thanks so much for that at the end. I’m sure everybody on the line has a response, but we’re going to end it there. I want to thank our panelists so much for taking the time to do this. For everyone who joined the call, you can find more resources at and, of course, Both Jeremy and Agnès have recently written pieces there that you can read. Jeremy’s is, The Looming Famine in—sorry, How to Prevent Famine in Gaza. And Agnès is about Gaza and the international order. Thank you all so much for coming. And thank you for doing this. 


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