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‘Mission impossible’: Gaza humanitarian envoy David Satterfield’s high-stakes diplomacy

Washington thinks Israel has an obligation to both fight Hamas and protect Gazan civilians. That leaves Satterfield walking a tightrope

Soon after the first Israeli hostages held by Hamas were released last week, President Joe Biden held an impromptu press conference at a Nantucket, Mass., hotel to address the U.S.-brokered deal that encompassed the releases of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, and the delivery of additional humanitarian aid to Gaza in exchange for a pause in Israel’s ground war. His brief remarks mentioned just one American official by name: David Satterfield, the U.S. special envoy for Middle East humanitarian issues.

“I’ve asked him to monitor our progress hour-by-hour and keep me personally informed,” Biden said of the increased humanitarian assistance that would be delivered to Gaza during the pause in fighting. 

A longtime senior diplomat who has held high-ranking positions across the Arab world, Satterfield has become an indispensable part of the Biden administration’s handling of the war in Gaza. He was named to the post just eight days after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, tasked with leading “a whole-of-government campaign to mitigate the humanitarian fallout of Hamas’ terrorist attack against Israel,” Secretary of State Tony Blinken said in a press release.

This framing was important: It laid the blame for the impending humanitarian crisis at Hamas’ feet, and bolstered Washington’s argument that considering Gaza’s humanitarian needs was not just morally right, but also a strategic component of Israel’s response to the Hamas attack. The administration’s thinking held that by easing the suffering of Palestinian civilians, Israel would have a longer runway for its military campaign.

“It’s not as though the humanitarian aspects of this are just something that they do on the side to do for PR for the world,” said Washington Institute for Near East Policy Executive Director Robert Satloff, who has known Satterfield for decades and has been in touch with him about his current role. “No, it is an essential element of being able to have the time and space to achieve the strategic mission. So the deployment of Satterfield by the president, and what he represents in terms of the U.S. effort to coordinate this, is a huge advantage for Israel.”

But tying humanitarian concerns so closely to a military campaign means that Satterfield, more than any other American official, is walking a tightrope: His work is both crucial to Israel’s war effort and, sometimes, at odds with it.

“If we back [Israel’s] campaign to eliminate Hamas, that means quite likely there will be more combat. So then that’s in tension with the humanitarian aid situation for Gazans,” said Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute. 

That tension became even clearer this week. As the weeklong humanitarian pause in fighting appeared to be nearing an end, Biden administration officials were warning Israel that it should not begin its planned campaign in southern Gaza until more had been done to account for the huge population of Palestinians who fled there from northern Gaza earlier in the war. 

“We don’t support southern operations unless or until the Israelis can show that they have accounted for all the internally displaced people of Gaza,” John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, said on Tuesday.

Blinken relayed this message to Israeli officials during his Thursday visit to Tel Aviv. 

“In my meetings today with the prime minister and senior Israeli officials, I made clear that before Israel resumes major military operations, it must put in place humanitarian civilian protection plans that minimize further casualties of innocent Palestinians,” Blinken said. “That means taking more effective steps to protect the lives of civilians, including by clearly and precisely designating areas and places in southern and central Gaza where they can be safe and out of the line of fire.”

Blinken added that, even with extra care taken to avoid harm to civilians, “all of this can be done in a manner that still enables Israel to achieve its objectives,” he said.

Satterfield is not focused on litigating Israel’s conduct in the war, although that factors into how, when and where humanitarian aid can be delivered into the logistical mess that is Gaza. (Satterfield was one of four American officials who, with Blinken, attended a Thursday meeting of Israel’s war cabinet.) Working mostly behind the scenes, he has had a hand in the reopening of the Rafah border crossing and the delivery of much-needed food and fuel to Gaza.

“He has helped develop solutions to difficult challenges and achieve breakthroughs that are making a real difference for Palestinians in need,” National Security Council Chief of Staff Curtis Ried told Jewish Insider

Aaron David Miller, who worked on Israeli-Palestinian issues at the State Department for more than 20 years, highlighted Satterfield’s “capacity to actually act to make the trains run” in a complex arena.

“What’s required now is somebody who knows both sides well, who has the confidence of the president and the secretary, and who can facilitate and try to make things happen against the backdrop of what I would think is an almost mission impossible,” Miller, now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said. 

Starting in 2009, Satterfield spent several years as the director-general of the Multinational Force and Observers, the international peacekeeping body that enforces the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel — the two countries that now are most directly involved in getting aid to Gaza. He has also served as ambassador to Turkey and Lebanon, along with high-level stints at Foggy Bottom.

David Satterfield, acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations in Dirksen Building titled “U.S. Policy in Syria Post-ISIS,” on January 10, 2018.

“The guy is incredibly capable. They call him the ‘walking talking point.’ He speaks in full paragraphs. It’s remarkable,” said David Schenker, who served as the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs during the Trump administration, a position he took over from Satterfield, who held the role in an interim capacity. “He’s the consummate diplomat.”

But Satterfield’s prowess as a diplomat was met with skepticism by the former mission director of USAID in the West Bank and Gaza, Dave Harden.

“I think he just signals into the foreign policy establishment that confidence and competence, but he doesn’t have any humanitarian bona fides, as far as what I know,” said Harden. He urged Satterfield, who rarely speaks publicly about his work, to more frequently appear before the media to highlight what Washington is doing. 

“The messaging has to be that we care about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and here’s our guy,” said Harden, who is also worried that the humanitarian assistance secured by Washington so far is still coming up short of what’s needed. “There’s a humanitarian catastrophe and it doesn’t seem like anything’s working and the risks are really high and there’s going to be deep-seated grievances that could extend generations.”

Washington’s approach to the humanitarian situation in Gaza and its admonitions that Israel do more to protect civilians have rankled some of Israel’s more hawkish supporters, who think that such public language plays into the hands of Israel’s opponents.

“I think that in pursuing this balancing act of allowing Israel to eradicate Hamas [and] at the same time [provide] aid to civilians, the United States should do the aid provision, but also not feed the narrative that Israel is using disproportionate force to knock out a terrorist infrastructure embedded within civilian living areas,” said Sander Gerber, who was heavily involved in drafting legislation that restricts American funding for the Palestinian Authority due to its financial support of terrorists. 

In a Nov. 9 call with reporters, Satterfield made the case for his work.

“We wish to see Israel able to achieve a goal which is not just its right, but its responsibility: to end the threat which this terrorist group poses to Israelis, to end the threat that they pose to the civilians of Gaza, for whose welfare they care not a whit,” Satterfield said. “But how it is done makes all the difference in the world, and humanitarian assistance is a vital, vital requirement throughout.”

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