The day after

Barbara Leaf says that ‘reality’ might force Israel to allow PA to govern Gaza

The high-ranking State Department official also denied that Hamas had fully rejected a cease-fire proposal, and pushed back against accusations that Israel is blocking humanitarian aid moving into Gaza

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf (L) and Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for the Middle East Dana Stroul (R) testify during a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the U.S. Capitol on November 8, 2023 in Washington, DC.

A senior State Department official suggested, in testimony before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee subcommittee hearing on the Middle East on Tuesday, that circumstances might force Israel to accede to the Palestinian Authority becoming the new governing authority in Gaza despite its strong objections. 

Barbara Leaf, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, also denied that Hamas had fully rejected a cease-fire proposal put forward by the U.S. and Israel and said the terrorist group cannot be fully defeated through military means, while pushing back against accusations that Israel is blocking humanitarian aid from moving into Gaza.

Leaf criticized the Israeli government for “insufficient planning” for the day after the war, but said that the U.S. has put together, and discussed with Israeli and Arab partners in the region, “concepts … we will be prepared to share with partners here shortly.”

She suggested that despite Israeli resistance to the prospect of reinstalling the Palestinian Authority as the governing power in Gaza, the body might end up as the authority anyway.

“I think reality has a way of pushing even those who can’t imagine a concept, such as the PA returning to Gaza,” Leaf said. “Reality has a way of intruding.”

She acknowledged, however, that the PA faces severe issues in governing the West Bank, even without expanding its responsibilities to Gaza. She said that necessary changes, which she hopes will be implemented by the new PA government, include “administrative reforms that go to the issue of accountability of the money that it has and where it’s going and how it’s being spent.” She also said that all of the U.S.’ regional partners acknowledge the issues in the PA.

Leaf added that she believes that “we’re very near a conclusion” on efforts to convince the PA to cease its “pay for slay” policy through which it pays monthly stipends to individuals or families of individuals who have carried out terror attacks; the U.S. cannot directly fund the PA as long as the PA continues those payments.

Leaf said Hamas had not turned down the cease-fire deal presented by President Joe Biden and approved by Israel outright earlier this month, arguing instead that “it was something short of reject — it was a yes, but with a lot of buts to it … some of those changes to the text were things that you could manage. Others were less, apparently, so.”

Israeli officials have said that, if a deal cannot be reached, they will continue to pursue Hamas’ destruction militarily. Leaf, however, said it’s the administration’s view that it’s impossible to defeat Hamas by military means alone.

Leaf affirmed that the U.S. would not unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state outside of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. 

She pushed back against critics in Israel and the U.S. who say that the U.S.’ push for a two-state solution would reward Hamas for the Oct. 7 attack, arguing that Hamas has never supported the existence of an Israeli state or a two-state solution.

Leaf appeared to absolve Israel of responsibility for the humanitarian situation in Gaza, which critics inside and outside Congress have sought to pin on alleged Israeli obstruction.

“I wouldn’t say there is sufficient humanitarian aid going into Gaza — by no stretch of the imagination — but it is not because Israel is trying to impede it,” Leaf said. “There are a whole set of complex factors at work, among which is the extremely poor security conditions, for instance, on the other side of Kerem Shalom,” referring to the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt

She also blamed the issues on infighting among Palestinian groups, families and gangs and safety concerns for humanitarian workers. She praised the IDF and COGAT for implementing pauses in their operations to allow aid to move.

At the same time, Leaf said a mild improvement in humanitarian conditions in Gaza had been “reversed” with the beginning of Israel’s operations in Rafah.

Leaf defended Qatar, the controversial mediator for cease-fire talks, which some U.S. lawmakers have sought to pressure in hopes of pushing Hamas to agree to a deal.

She described Doha as a “critical” channel to Hamas, and other U.S. adversaries, and “a very trusted partner of ours.”

Leaf insisted that the Qataris have been pressuring the political officials of Hamas who reside in Qatar and have been dedicated to negotiating a deal, “but at the end of the day, there’s one guy, 10 stories below the ground, a psychopath, messianic in his own belief that he has established himself in history” — referring to Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza.

Addressing the simmering conflict along Israel’s northern border, Leaf said that “diplomacy is the only path” to restoring safety for both Lebanese and Israeli civilians. She said regional partners are pressuring the Houthis to cease their attacks in the Red Sea, but that a Gaza cease-fire will be critical to addressing the situations in both Yemen and Lebanon.

Leaf insisted that the administration is working diligently to sanction and intercept Iranian oil shipments as well as the proliferation of Iranian drones, but said it’s difficult to intercept every vector.

Jeanne Pryor, the deputy administrator for the Middle East Bureau at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said USAID is working with local partners to try to fill gaps throughout the region left by U.S. funding cuts to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, but called that task “very difficult” and not one for which USAID had been able to budget.

Pryor also said that key cooperative Israeli-Palestinian grant programs, including the Middle East Partnership for Peace and the Middle East Regional Cooperation Program, are continuing despite the war and “remain committed to their work” and to collaboration.

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