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Uzra Zeya, US Under Secretary of State: ‘Hamas’s tactics do not absolve Israel of its obligations to uphold international law’

The American diplomat, who overseas human rights and civilian security, talks to EL PAÍS about the future of Gaza, the rise of Islamophobia, and why the United States is opposed to a cease-fire

Uzra Zeya
Uzra Zeya, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid.Jaime Villanueva
Carlos Torralba

Uzra Zeya, 55, has spent countless hours in recent weeks to trying to alleviate the suffering of Gazans caused by Israel’s military offensive. The U.S. Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Right maintains that Israel’s offensive on the Gaza Strip must comply with international law, but rejects the option of declaring a cease-fire because, she believes, it would benefit Hamas. After traveling to Paris and Cairo to coordinate and accelerate the entry of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip, Zeya spoke to EL PAÍS on Thursday in Madrid about the situation in the Palestinian enclave.

Question. Is the U.S. administration doing enough to minimize civilian deaths in Gaza?

Answer. We are working intensively to meet urgent humanitarian needs in Gaza. We are working intensively to expand, accelerate and maximize the inflow of humanitarian assistance and minimize harm to civilians. We have been in continuous dialogue with Israeli government counterparts on ways that they could further reduce civilian harm. Because while the United States, like Spain, supports strongly Israel’s right to self-defense, it must do so in accordance with international law, including humanitarian law. Our intense diplomatic humanitarian response is with respect to securing the safe passage and exit of thousands of foreign nationals who remain in Gaza.

Q. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared a few days ago that “too many Palestinians have been killed, far too many have suffered.” Is the Israeli government heeding Washington’s requests?

A. Secretary Blinken has deployed the devastating civilian toll in this crisis, wrought by Hamas’s horrific acts of violence and terror. Not only against Israelis, but we saw more than 30 nationalities perish among the more than 1,200 people killed in the October 7 attacks. We mourn every loss of civilian life. We are intensely engaging Israel on how it conducts its self-defense. And I believe we have seen constructive responses, such as the Israeli announcement of tactical humanitarian pauses, the creation of two humanitarian corridors that are allowing Palestinian civilians in North Gaza to exit to areas where they can receive humanitarian support in southern Gaza.

Q. The U.N. Security Council approved a resolution on Wednesday calling on Israel and Hamas to agree to “humanitarian pauses” for a “sufficient number of days” to allow aid to enter the Gaza Strip. It also called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of all the hostages held by the fundamentalist militia. Why did the United States abstain from the vote?

A. The United States abstained on the vote due to two missing elements in that Security Council resolution. One was the resolution failed to condemn Hamas’ absolutely unconscionable actions on October 7. And frankly, we find it difficult to understand why any government would oppose that. And secondly, the resolution did not acknowledge that countries have the right to defend themselves against terrorism. But we did support the elements of the resolution calling for immediate release of hostages by Hamas and humanitarian pauses.

Q. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said a few days ago that both Israel and Hamas have perpetrated war crimes. Do you agree with him?

A. There is no question that Hamas is deliberate targeting of civilians and the taking of hostages, including babies, all the way to elderly people, survivor of the Holocaust among them. These are war crimes. With respect to Israel’s actions, we are continually monitoring the situation. War crime is a term that we only use with explicit care, and we would only make such an assessment after a full exploration of the facts. And we strongly believe that Israel is making an effort to minimize civilian casualties, but we recognize that the Israeli government has an immense burden due to Hamas’s longstanding tactics of enmeshing itself among civilians, essentially using them as civilian shields, and also embedding itself among civilian infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, where Hamas has placed command centers and stored weapons. This creates a much greater difficulty for Israel, but it does not absolve Israel of its obligations to uphold international law.

Q. Hamas accuses the United States of giving Israel the green light to raid and attack the Al Shifa hospital, the largest in the Gaza. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby has denied this. Does the U.S. have a clear position on the attacks on hospitals where thousands of civilians are taking refuge from bombs?

A. The U.S. position is very clear. President [Joe] Biden and other senior officials have made clear that civilians at hospitals, medical personnel and patients must be protected. And we have conveyed to the highest levels of the Israeli government that hospitals must be supported to run effectively, including ensuring that fuel supplies for their life-saving work. But there is ample open source information on Hamas’s tactics of using different civilian institutions, including hospitals, to store weapons and conceal their military operations.

U.S. Under Secretary of State Uzra Zeya on Thursday after the interview.
U.S. Under Secretary of State Uzra Zeya on Thursday after the interview.Jaime Villanueva

Q. Is the U.S. already working on what the future in Gaza will be like after the end of the Israeli offensive?

A. Absolutely. We believe, like Spain, that ultimately the only sustainable, durable solution to this conflict is the two-state solution. Secretary Blinken put forth a series of principles with respect to what we would reject in this context. We reject any forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza; we reject Gaza becoming a platform for launching terrorism against Israel or any other country; we reject any blockade of Gaza after the conflict; we reject any reoccupation of Gaza; and finally, we reject any diminution of Gaza’s territorial integrity. The future governance of Gaza must be centered around Palestinian hopes and aspirations. But we, the United States, do not believe that Hamas represents the Palestinian people. These are all issues that need to be further elaborated with the Palestinian Authority, with regional governments, our European and transatlantic partners, not only to find a lasting solution, but also a sustainable mechanism for reconstruction for Gaza.

Q. Support for Israel among U.S. citizens has plummeted in recent weeks. Some recent polls show that more than 70% of the population believes that the Israeli government should declare a ceasefire, and less than a third of Americans are in favor of continuing to send weapons to Israel. Do you find this worrying?

A. We are a thriving democracy that welcomes, active, vociferous debate on our foreign policy. What we do not support are calls for Israel to stop defending itself from terrorists, which is what a permanent ceasefire would be. Hamas cannot be allowed to repeat the horrors of October 7. We’re very concerned by rising acts of anti-Semitism in the United States and globally, but we are also deeply concerned by rising acts of Islamophobia, including the horrific murder of Wadea Al-Fayoume, a six-year-old Palestinian American boy, who was murdered [in mid-October in Illinois] by a person simply for who he was.

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