It is unclear whether the United States has established a formal “no strike” list or is providing ad hoc guidance. But authorities have helped pass on contact details for groups that provide food and medical care in Gaza and operate in hospitals, smaller offices and live in guest houses. Among the sites provided to the Israeli government are medical facilities, including Al-Shifa Hospital, parts of which were recaptured by Israeli forces on November 15.
In public statements, U.S. officials have stressed that humanitarian groups are having difficulty operating in the Gaza Strip because of Hamas, pointing out that the militant group uses civilians as human shields and operates tunnels under hospitals.
But Israel’s continued bombing of these humanitarian facilities raises further questions about whether Washington has the political influence many in the administration want over Israel. And the divide is particularly stark given that the aim is to protect aid workers – one of the most fundamental principles of international humanitarian law.
“The Biden administration may be trying behind the scenes… but it’s probably going nowhere. When Israelis feel they are in a situation of existential threat, American influence diminishes,” said Robert Ford, a former American diplomat who served extensively in the Middle East, including under President Barack Obama.
The National Security Council highlighted spokesperson John Kirby’s previous comments at Monday’s news conference, in which he told reporters that the administration does not “want to see hospitals as battlefields.”
On Tuesday, U.S. officials announced an imminent announcement of a deal between Israel and Hamas for the release of hostages and a pause in fighting. But such a pause would likely only take effect for a few days, and Israel has given no indication that it would adjust its targeting of sites afterward.
Those who have worked for aid groups in the region say Israel is abandoning practices it previously used to protect aid groups.
“There is really no justification for the lack of a functioning deconfliction channel with humanitarian groups,” said a senior official with the humanitarian group who has worked on previous crises in the region. “The IDF is familiar with deconfliction practices and has established a channel during previous conflicts. »
The United States is far from the only group providing such data to Israel. The main clearinghouse for so-called humanitarian deconfliction is the UN. Humanitarian organizations in Gaza say they rely primarily on the United Nations system and send their contact details to the United States – and directly to the Israeli government – as a stopgap in an effort to avoid further civilian casualties under the intensification of bombings.
Humanitarian groups, particularly those working in Gaza’s hospitals, said Israeli operations have made it almost impossible to continue caring for patients, including premature babies.
“I have spent my entire adult professional life primarily providing medical care in conflict zones, and I have never seen anything like this,” said Dr. Amber Alayyan, a doctor with Doctors Without Borders. “This is not just about attacks on structures that should be safe, like hospitals and schools, but also about keeping an entire population without food, water or fuel for over a month.”
The Israeli military did not respond to requests for comment. Jessica Jennings, a spokeswoman for USAID – the agency that supports some humanitarian groups operating in Gaza – said the United States “engages” with the United Nations and the Israeli government “on protecting the movements and humanitarian and civilian infrastructure.
But a U.N. official familiar with refugee operations in Gaza said Israel often defines targets as worthy of strikes despite the presence of a humanitarian site or activity nearby.
“We disagree on what they consider to be collateral damage or military necessity and what we consider to be a very high civilian toll, whether human lives or infrastructure, including including ours,” said the official, who requested anonymity. to discuss sensitive conversations. “The response we get is, ‘Well, your school is in the middle of what we consider a military zone or area of operations. »
David Satterfield, the U.S. special envoy for humanitarian issues in the Middle East, said in a public event with Al-Monitor that the administration has asked Israel to create a “single, coordinated and functional deconfliction mechanism.” .
“Over the past 48 hours, after several tragic incidents of attacks on humanitarian agencies, we have made it clear to Israel that more must be done,” Satterfield said. “Israel recognizes this need and is taking action. »
Shortly after Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7, humanitarian groups in Gaza sent their contact details to the United Nations – using a long-standing agreement called the Humanitarian Notification System – to prevent accidental attacks on civilians. The HNS was used by Israel during the 2014 war against Hamas in Gaza. It is just one of many such systems that exist in conflict zones around the world.
But last month, as aerial bombardments intensified in Gaza, aid groups sought additional communications channels to share GPS coordinates and information about their work., including calling senior U.S. officials and members of Congress — hoping Washington could help protect their workers, two of the people familiar with the matter said.
However, as Washington talked with the Israeli government about the location of aid groups’ offices, guest houses and medical facilities, attacks on aid workers continued.
Human Rights Watch said an Israeli airstrike hit an area behind the Indonesian hospital in Gaza, killing two people, according to the United Nations. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, one of the United Nations aid agencies operating in Gaza, said 176 people sheltering in its facilities were believed to have been killed during “bombing by Israeli forces.”
Doctors Without Borders said last week that its staff had taken shelter in the organization’s offices and guest houses and that despite efforts by the Israeli government, they could not leave.
“We shared our contact details. We were asked (by the Israelis) to evacuate our guesthouse. However, we still have staff sheltering there with their families and they are stuck, without water or food,” Alayyan said. “We are begging – begging – to be able to let the civilians go. »
Improve the system
It is unclear whether Israel chooses to ignore the information provided or whether the conflict resolution systems are simply too unequal. Either possibility is alarming given that the war between Israel and Hamas is already in its second month, and with no end in sight.
“The situation is unprecedented,” said an official from an aid group whose organization works in Gaza and who was granted anonymity because he feared for the safety of aid workers on the ground. “This type of bombing concentrated on such a small area makes deconfliction all the more important. »
Humanitarian groups provide a crucial lifeline for Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire, and their leaders say it is essential that warring parties, including Hamas militants, spare them.
Aid organizations and U.S. officials say the U.N. reporting system needs improvement.
Despite multiple channels of contact sharing, more U.N. aid workers have been killed in Gaza this year than in any other conflict in the agency’s history. Although details of their deaths have not always been disclosed, the U.N. and other humanitarian groups have said that many of their employees died in the course of their daily lives and outside of their official duties. . (These private activities are not reported to the reporting system.)
Asked whether the U.N. notification system alerts Hamas to the activities and sites of humanitarian groups, a U.N. official familiar with the matter said the Gaza system attempts to notify “all parties to a conflict, including groups of non-state actors and other de facto authorities.”
“What we are seeing today in terms of the scale of the conflict is very different from what it was before,” the official said. “We’re trying to streamline so that (the Israelis) can, maybe in this environment, not get overwhelmed.”
Asked if the U.N.’s efforts to help Israelis better use the notification system were an indication that they were not doing it well, the U.N. official said: “We have had more of 50 installations affected or damaged. »
Still, the U.N. official and others familiar with the matter said the Israeli government appears willing to improve the system. “They are working with us,” the UN official said.