State Dept Press Briefing – Nov 21, 2023
The US State Dept Spokesperson Matthew Miller held a press briefing on Nov 21, 2023. The Q-A on Afghanistan, Pakistan and B’desh is tweaked to appear upfront.
Play Video 1:27 p.m. EST
MR MILLER: Afternoon, everyone. I am here for your questions.
QUESTION: U.S. Ambassador in Pakistan Donald Blome announced the aid package of $4 million for Pakistani security forces to bolster Pakistan’s counterterrorism capabilities. But a group of U.S. lawmakers, in a letter to Secretary Blinken, asked Biden administration to suspend all military assistance to Pakistan for human rights violations and for the political crisis. So, would you provide any details about that aid package? And how would you respond to that letter of U.S. lawmakers?
MR MILLER: I wouldn’t want to preview how we would respond to the letter here. We obviously respond directly to those members of Congress. With respect to the announcement that the ambassador made, we’ll be pursuing four new initiatives to support the Balochistan police in their efforts to protect and serve their local communities. We’re going to provide $4 million in assistance to expand the anti-terrorist force training facility – $2 million to repair or replace 10 flood-damaged police stations; 2 million to construct 10 new police stations that incorporate the same model to improve service to women, girls, and all Pakistanis; and an additional $250,000 in equipment to protect law enforcement officers in the course of conducting their work. These initiatives build on more than 40 years of partnership between the U.S. mission in Pakistan and the Pakistani Government on civilian security and rule of law. And from our standpoint, the partnership improves justice institutions and provides law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to protect Pakistan citizens.
QUESTION: Pakistani media is reporting that U.S. Ambassador Donald Blome held a meeting with former Prime Minister Imran Khan in Adiala prison and discussed the political situation. Would you deny or confirm that meeting with Imran Khan?
MR MILLER: I would refer you to the embassy to comment on any meetings the ambassador has had. But as we have said a number of times, we do not take position – a position on candidates for political office in Pakistan or any other country.
QUESTION: One last question, sir. Pakistan is deporting millions of Afghan refugees, but on the request of U.S. Government, Pakistan says that it would not deport 25,000 Afghan refugees who are waiting for their American visas. So how would you see this decision of Pakistani Government?
MR MILLER: We are in close and constant communication with the Government of Pakistan on the safety of individuals in the U.S. pipeline. It is our desire to work in good faith with the Government of Pakistan to address any concerns that it may have. Our key concern is the safety of the vulnerable and at-risk individuals. We believe it is in both our countries’ interest to ensure the safe and efficient resettlement of refugees and asylum speakers – asylum seekers. And we join all of our partners in urging all countries, including Pakistan, to uphold their respective obligations in the treatment of refugees and asylum speakers – or asylum seekers, and strongly encourage all of Afghanistan’s neighbors to allow entry for Afghans seeking international protection, and coordinate with international humanitarian organizations to provide humanitarian assistance.
QUESTION: Can I have a follow-up, just on that?
MR MILLER: Sure, go ahead.
QUESTION: Could you give us a sense of numbers? How many Afghans we’re talking about that would be in this pipeline?
MR MILLER: I don’t have a number at my disposal right now. I’d be happy to follow up and see if we can get it for you. I just don’t have it at my fingertips.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. So, I’ll change subcontinent – just to make sure, do you think that the choice of violence by the nationalist party in Bangladesh is contributing to the undermining that democratic process in Bangladesh?
MR MILLER: We want to see a free and peaceful election in Bangladesh. We want to see the elections carried out peacefully. That has been our policy, as I have made clear a number of times from here.
QUESTION: And – thank you for that. Will you condemn – I repeat – will you condemn the political violence orchestrated by the BNP to the context of human rights that U.S. care about?
MR MILLER: I think I answered that with my previous answer.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, tell us what the latest – your latest understanding is of this alleged deal?
MR MILLER: With respect to hostages – so what I will say is that we are very close to an agreement, but we are not there yet. As you have heard us say a number of times over the course of the past few weeks, nothing is final until everything is final. And at this point, everything is not yet final, but we are close. The Israeli cabinet is meeting to discuss this matter right now. We are in close conversation with them, as we are with the Government of Qatar, who has been helping facilitate discussions since the early days of the crisis. We are hopeful to have some good news for the hostages and their families. We are hopeful we can start bringing some of them home, but as I said at the outset, we are not quite there yet.
QUESTION: All right. When made reference to the Israeli cabinet meeting right now. Is that the last thing that needs to be done?
MR MILLER: I really don’t want to get into the underlying details. Obviously, the Israeli Government discussing and coming to some sort of resolution is one part of this; there are others. I don’t want to get into the full details. I will say that, of course, the implementation and execution of an agreement – should one be reached – requires the cooperation of Hamas, a terrorist organization, so it’s why we’re always hesitant to say too much about what will happen before it has happened. But we are close to an agreement, hopeful one can be reached.
QUESTION: And have you received any updates on their conditions, whereabouts, if they’re being held together, if they are all, in fact, being held by Hamas?
MR MILLER: Again, I can’t get into too much into the underlying details. It has always been our assessment that Hamas may not have control of all of these hostages, but beyond that I just don’t want to speak to any specific details.
QUESTION: Is it your understanding that if and when a deal is reached that would then trigger more aid being able to get into Gaza, as the Secretary had suggested would happen?
MR MILLER: Let me say a couple things about that. One, it has always been the position of the United States that we do not need a hostage deal. There shouldn’t – that to get more aid in, that more fuel, more food, more water, more medicine should not be contingent on a hostage agreement being reached. We thought that the delivery of humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian people was important in its own right and that’s why the Secretary has been pushing for it. It’s why the President has been pushing for it; it’s what our Ambassador David Satterfield has been working to implement on the ground. That said, it has been clear that for some time that an agreement on hostages would release or would unlock the potential for delivery of more humanitarian assistance so we’re hopeful that that would take place. But, again, it has always been our position that the two don’t need to be linked, that humanitarian assistance should be delivered as quickly as possible for the benefit of the Palestinian people. I would it does appear that any kind of hostage agreement, should we reach one, would unlock more humanitarian assistance flowing in.
QUESTION: Actually, that was similar to my question, but on the understanding that that is what you’re hoping for, have you made extra preparations? I mean, are you poised to move quickly to get more aid in? Like what’s the activity around that?
MR MILLER: We have been working to – not just related to any hostage arrangement, but we have been working independent of that to facilitate the delivery of more humanitarian assistance in. And so you have seen U.S. aid fly more humanitarian assistance into Egypt to have it prepositioned so it could go in to Gaza. Some of that aid has started to move. We’ve been working with other international donors to facilitate the delivery of aid to Egypt to go in through Rafah, and then, of course, there’s a screening process that has been a bit of an impediment to the fast delivery of aid. And we have been working with the Government of Israel, with the Government of Egypt on all of these matters to try to increase the flow of humanitarian assistance. You saw a breakthrough last week, an initial breakthrough, when we saw an agreement to deliver fuel in, which, of course, is important to ensure that water can be desalinated; it’s important to ensure that there’s electricity for hospitals; it’s important to ensure that the implementors – the organizations that actually deliver the humanitarian assistance inside Gaza, once it goes through Rafah into Gaza, that they can deliver it to the people who need it. So we have been pushing all those things, independent of any potential hostage arrangement, and we’ll continue to do so.
QUESTION: Just one last question. The Israelis beginning their southern offensive, and you’ve talked about wanting to make sure there’s better arrangements in place for protection of civilians. Have you been asking them to delay their southern offensive until that’s ready? I mean, they’ve already kind of started anyway, but where are things …..
MR MILLER: So I won’t get into too much detail about the private conversations that happen between our two governments. But we have made clear to them, as we have made clear publicly, that we think they should not commence with further activities in the south until they have taken the proper steps to account for the humanitarian needs there. There are several hundred thousand people who have moved from the north to the south. Before any military offensive begins there, we would want to ensure that those people are properly protected.
Said, go ahead.
QUESTION: The potential deal that could or may not happen. Is it your understanding that there is a split in the Israeli cabinet to who may agree or disagree, and will that hold the going forward with a deal?
MR MILLER: I’m just not going to discuss internal Israeli political matters.
QUESTION: Right. But let’s say – I mean, if the war cabinet agrees and the larger cabinet does not agree or the supreme court and so on, then we’re back to square one. Are you urging the Israelis to go forward with a deal?
MR MILLER: I’m not going to discuss our private conversations with the Israeli Government. But we have been attempting to reach an agreement to secure the release of hostages for some time, and I’ll leave it at that.
QUESTION: All right. Let me just ask you something that you always state, that you want the Israelis to abide by the laws of war, you want to minimize civilian causalities among Palestinians and so on. Yesterday or the day before was children’s world day, whatever. Fifty-five hundred Palestinian children have died thus far. Do you think the Israel’s are abiding by the laws of war?
MR MILLER: As the Secretary has said, it is our belief that far too many Palestinian civilians have been killed as the result of this conflict. We continue to engage with the Government of Israel about steps we believe they should take to minimize civilian casualties. It is an ongoing conversation between our two governments. And we continue to engage with them on every possible measure they can take to ensure that civilians are not in harm’s way, as they conduct legitimate military operations. And I do want to remind everyone again that the reason why this is so difficult even than in most conflicts – is because Hamas embeds itself inside civilian targets. And so, Israel faces this difficult situation, where there are legitimate military targets, terrorists who launched an attack against the Israeli public and who have said they want to continue launching terrorist attacks against the Israeli public, and in fact continue to launch rockets, even in the past few days, against the Israeli public. And Israel has a right and obligation to take military action to try to bring those terrorists to justice. But their burden is in no way lessened to minimize civilian harm. And so that is what we continue to emphasize to them in all of our conversations with them, including concrete steps about how they can do that.
QUESTION: And on that very point now, the Israelis seem to be obsessed with the Palestinian hospitals. I wonder if you have seen the interview done on CNN with the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, who acknowledged that it was actually Israel that built these basements or tunnels and so on. Have you seen that?
MR MILLER: I saw a report of the interview. I haven’t seen the full interview, and I don’t have any independent assessment about that.
MR MILLER: I would say, regardless of where – what particular tunnel he might be speaking to or what’s – if there are Hamas – the issue of Hamas embedding itself under a hospital would be a different matter.
QUESTION: Obviously, I mean, they really showed no proof. But what he was suggesting, that these caverns or whatever you want to call them – underneath the hospital, they actually were there for utilitarian purposes.
MR MILLER: It’s public knowledge at this point – shown over many years that Hamas has also built its own tunnels, regardless of of that. Number two, whatever infrastructure exists at a hospital, under a hospital, no matter who put it there, terrorists should not be using that infrastructure to embed themselves underneath a civilian target, underneath a civilian hospital, underneath a hospital that is supposed to exist for the care of civilians, and making that – using that facility as a human shield. So it is, I think, a separate issue than who might have built whatever room it is the former prime minister was referring to.
QUESTION: Matt, just to follow up on a couple of things from colleagues’ questions. So this might be a little bit down the line, but is there at all an understanding in these hostage negotiations for what comes next after this deal? And I’m asking because there are 240 people who were taken hostage by Hamas. So, while Israel, Hamas, Qatar, and you were in – somehow in these conversations about this number of people, was there any understanding for what happens with the rest of the people?
MR MILLER: I do appreciate the question, but if I am going to decline to comment on an arrangement that has not yet been finalized, not yet been reached, I certainly don’t think I can comment on what might come next after this arrangement. And I would just say, to reiterate that again, we’re close to a deal. We don’t have one yet. I can’t talk about what might be in a potential deal, let alone what might come in its aftermath.
QUESTION: But surely, you’re talking for everybody —
MR MILLER: It has been our goal from the beginning to secure the release of every single hostage. The United States is focused on American citizens, of course, but we’re focused on all the hostages. We want to see all the hostages released. We don’t think any of them should be held. That has been the goal of our negotiations from the outset, but I can’t get into what any steps might look like.
QUESTION: Okay. And just to push you a little bit more on Barbara’s question about possible Israeli offensive in the south, John Finer also talked about this as well, but what is the very latest in the sense that are you getting a timeline from them on when they are planning to start this? And are you telling them specifically here are the things, here are the objectives, here are the safe zones you have to create – or whatever you think appropriate to call them – before you start this, and without these, you should not be starting it? Is it that clear-cut?
MR MILLER: So we are having fairly detailed conversations with them about steps that they could take to protect civilians and steps that they could take to increase humanitarian access, increase humanitarian protections, especially in the south. I don’t want to get into the details of those conversation. Obviously, the Israeli Government makes its own decisions about its military campaigns. The conversations we have been having with them are on steps that they can take as they look to the south to increase protections for civilians, especially considering that hundreds of thousands of civilians – after being told to move by the Israeli Government – moved from the north to the south. We think it’s important that those civilians now have a way to put themselves out of harm’s way.
QUESTION: And in terms of the protections for civilians, is it United States Government’s proposal, and does it include ICRC or UN for the creation of those safe zones? Like whose proposal is it and what does it look like?
MR MILLER: So we have been in conversation not just with the Government of Israel but with a range of humanitarian organizations, including the United Nations, about how exactly civilian protections could be implemented, how they can best be implemented, but I think it’s best that while those conversations are ongoing I keep the details of them confidential.
QUESTION: There seems to be a bit of a discrepancy between U.S. and UN on the opening of Kerem Shalom. I’ve read the transcript from yesterday. You guys don’t seem to be focusing on trying to get that one open. Do you think Rafah has the capacity to process more aid? But UN – Martin Griffiths seems to disagree a little bit, and they are imploring Israel to allow humanitarian aid via Kerem Shalom. Why the discrepancy?
MR MILLER: So, there may be a little bit of apples and oranges here. I think in terms of addressing your question, we don’t think that there is a problem with the ability for Rafah to handle more traffic in terms of the number of trucks that can just physically go through it carrying humanitarian – Rafah is big enough to handle that. It’s big enough to allow the delivery of a massive amount of humanitarian assistance. There has been an issue with screening. And we have been in conversation with the Government of Israel about ways to get additional screening for trucks that would then go in through Rafah. But let me – I’m coming – the Government of Israel has very real concerns about security at Kerem Shalom, and you can understand why. One side of that border is obviously Gaza, in areas of Gaza that are still controlled by Hamas, that are not controlled by the Government of Israel. We continue to have conversations with Israel about the best way to increase the amount of screening so trucks can get screened and then get in through Rafah, but they do have very real concerns about opening Kerem Shalom, and that’s why you’ve seen them not take that step as of yet.
QUESTION: Final thing, because Griffiths is actually giving a percentage, saying Kerem Shalom Crossing used to – was used to carry more than 60 percent of the truckloads going into Gaza before the conflict, but I understand and I am aware of the sort of screening-related backlog. The U.S. is not pursuing this actively with the Israelis is what I am understanding from you, the opening of that.
MR MILLER: The point I am making is that we think Rafah is sufficient for the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
MR MILLER: That is a separate question from screening. We want to try to get screening back online and open. But we think Rafah gate at this point is the appropriate way to get assistance in.
QUESTION: Thank you, Matt. Correspondent Farah Omar – she was colleague as well – and cameraman Rabih Maamari were killed by an Israeli attack in south of Lebanon. It was direct attack because it was carried by a drone. And drone, you have a camera, you can see who’s on the ground. They were under a tree waiting for her turn to go live on TV.
Well, there was a comment from the manager of the Al-Mayadeen channel who happened to be their boss that Israeli Government decision this month to block access to channel’s website and this attack targeted them. Last week, also my colleague (inaudible) could have killed as well – the missile passed by him and there was a convoy of different stations – Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, all kind of stations, Washington Post in Beirut. They were checking some of the areas toured by the UN.
So how Israel is obeying the rule of law if it’s attacking directly journalists to punish them or silence them? And no offense, but Israel has an extension – a huge history of killing civilians directly.
MR MILLER: I’m never in a position from here to speak to any particular strike or any particular military action when the entire facts are not known to me or not known to the U.S. Government, including what information the Government of Israel had, what might have gone into a decision, whether there was a mistake or not. It’s impossible for me to speak to the merits of any individual strike. That has been true not just with respect to this one but with respect to others.
I will say that we are concerned by the reports that civilians, including two journalists, were killed in Lebanon. Our thoughts are with the loved ones of those killed and all these Lebanese people. If you were here yesterday, you heard me speak to our belief in the importance that journalists play in conflict zones. Journalists are fundamental to a free society. We stand with the journalists around the world who do critical work that we rely on every day. We rely on the reports of journalists here in the United States Government. We know people all around the world do, and they do that in some of the most dangerous conditions imaginable.
I will also say that we are concerned over the escalation of violence along the Blue Line. We have made clear we don’t want to see the conflict in Gaza spread to Lebanon. That has been one of our top priorities and one of the top objectives we’ve tried to achieve since the outset of this conflict. Restoring calm along the Blue Line is of the utmost importance to us, and it should be a top priority for both Israel and Lebanon.
QUESTION: There was also an attack on a church yesterday. And I’m not sure if you know the nature of south of Lebanon – Christian villages don’t have any existence of Hizballah. Let’s say like Hamas, they were like attacking or throwing missiles next to a hospital or a mosque. In Lebanon, Christian villages don’t have any presence of Hizballah. What was the target inside that church? Who is holding accountability of – I know you’re putting so much pressure on Israeli Government.
MR MILLER: I understand. But when you ask me that type of question, it was not an action carried out by the United States Government. It’s not a question I can answer, and I’m not able to offer an assessment about an individual strike.
QUESTION: You are supplying Israel over $14 billion of military aid.
MR MILLER: But when it comes to a specific strike where it’s not an action that’s taken by the United States Government, and I don’t have all the available information, it’s not something I can offer an assessment on.
QUESTION: Why the feeling in the Middle East that anything happen with – okay, everybody’s as a human, as any person will condemn any action against humans what happened October 7th. Why there’s a feeling in the Middle East in every country now that the U.S., whatever happens in Israel it’s a big deal, but the life of Palestinians or other people it’s no deal?
MR MILLER: I think the Secretary has been very clear about this exact question that far too many Palestinians have been killed. He’s spoken to this directly. He’s spoken to how, as a father, when he sees especially the bodies of deceased children, how it affects him. And I can tell you that’s true for everyone inside the United States Government. And it is precisely why we do engage with the Israeli Government to impress upon them the need to take all possible steps to minimize civilian harm. So I hear this sometimes, and I can tell you these are conversations that we have at the highest levels of our government, sometimes very intense conversations about steps that we believe Israel should take, as well as the steps that we believe they should take to keep civilians out of harm’s way, to help civilians move to places where they’ll be safe from harm, so they won’t be injured from this ongoing military conflict, as well as the steps that we think are important that we have pushed for and in many cases secured to get humanitarian assistance in to the Palestinian people.
QUESTION: Matt, will the Secretary receive the Arab ministerial delegation that visited China? And how do you view their visit to China, first?
MR MILLER: I don’t have any scheduling announcements to make, but certainly a number of the ministers who made that trip to China are people who he’s met with repeatedly in the past few weeks and people he’s had conversations with by phone repeatedly. So, we will continue to engage with a number of those individuals – whether it be here, whether it be in the region. I think you can anticipate that the Secretary is not done traveling to the region, and of course we – I will mention that we met with the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, the foreign minister of Egypt, both of whom were part of this delegation in New York last month. So we will continue to meet with them. Whether it’s here or there, I don’t have an announcement to make at this time.
QUESTION: The Saudi crown prince has asked all the countries who providing Israel with arms to stop providing them with ammunitions and arms. Is the U.S. ready to do so?
MR MILLER: No. That is not a step we’re ready to take. In fact, we have a supplemental request pending before Congress that we hope Congress will act on expeditiously, which provides additional assistance to Israel as well as additional assistance to Ukraine.
QUESTION: The White House said that it’s concerned that Wagner is potentially preparing to send military equipment to Hizballah or Iran. Firstly, your – what do you know, and what can you do to prevent this from happening? And also in terms of deal, how much do you think this might jeopardize —
MR MILLER: So it is a concern that we have. The White House spoke to this earlier today; I don’t have any kind of detail to add to that. …
QUESTION: I have a question on Russia and one on the U.S. There is a media report that President Biden will not be attending tomorrow’s virtual G20 summit. Who will be representing the U.S. tomorrow?
MR MILLER: So I will let the White House speak to the President’s schedule. I don’t have any update on that.
QUESTION: With Nicaragua pulling out of the OAS, the Organization of American States, I saw your tweet; I saw the State Department’s reaction to the letter. But how much more difficult is it now to hold the Ortega regime responsible for human rights abuses now that they’re out of the OAS?
MR MILLER: I will say that we will continue to call for the release of political prisoners in Nicaragua. We will continue to work with our allies and partners in the region. We do see them trying to avoid – trying to avoid accountability measures, including by departing the OAS, and it’s something we will continue to work with on our – our allies and partners with.
Shannon, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Your counterpart at the NSC, John Kirby, was also very careful, but he did say that the State Department might play a role in processing any released American hostages that might want to come home, suggesting it might look like the way non-hostages coming out of Gaza are processed by consular officers. Can you say anything more?
MR MILLER: All I would say is that with respect to any released hostage, it would be the same as with respect to any American in the world who needs assistance. We would provide them whatever consular assistance we can, and that obviously is true for any released hostages.
QUESTION: And on the Americans in Gaza, do you have an updated number of how many are seeking to leave the enclave?
MR MILLER: It is still – so we have gotten around 800 American citizens, legal permanent residents, and their family members out. I don’t have any update in terms of the numbers who are seeking to leave from the number I gave yesterday, which was around 1,200. But again, that’s not the number of American citizens; that’s American citizens and family members and others.
QUESTION: Today marks 10 years since Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity. I just want to give you a chance to speak to that. The Kremlin keeps calling it a, quote/unquote, “foreign-sponsored coup.” And separately, Russian foreign ministry officials also today were quoted as saying that the coexistence with Ukrainian current, quote/unquote, “regime” is not possible. What are some of the —
MR MILLER: I think what my reaction would be is that you continue to see the Russian Government make outrageous and unacceptable statements about Ukraine, and so we – it just reinforces our conviction to continue to supply Ukraine with the assistance that it needs to defend itself, to repel Russian aggression from its borders. We’ve seen Russia make – and that applies to the first part of your question as well. The amount of Russian propaganda that we hear about Ukraine didn’t just start this year or last year; it has been going on for a number of years. And it reaffirms, as I said, our commitment and, I think, heightens the need for Congress to take action to pass the supplemental request that we’ve sent up to Ukraine.
The Secretary just today had a call with his G7 counterparts to talk about additional steps that we are taking as – through the United States and we are taking in concert with our allies and partners and in cooperation with the Government of Ukraine to try to harden Ukraine’s infrastructure in advance of the winter. Last winter we saw Russia striking energy sites, trying to take them down in Ukraine, and so we are working with Ukraine to try to harden its infrastructure in advance of this winter.
QUESTION: After this morning’s North Korea missile launch, I understand NSC put out a statement saying you guys are still making assessments, but according to Yonhap, North Korea is claiming that it successfully put a spy satellite in orbit. So are you able to confirm whether or not the launch was successful, and if so, how does this change the security situation in the region and for the U.S.?
MR MILLER: I cannot confirm that assessment. It is still something that’s ongoing inside the United States Government. I can say that we condemn the DPRK’s unlawful launch of a military reconnaissance satellite on – today. This launch utilized ballistic missile technology, which includes space launch vehicles. It violates multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions, and we will continue to work with the international community to send a strong signal to the DPRK that its actions will only intensify its isolation as it undermines stability and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.
QUESTION: But can you say how concerning it would be if North Korea had a spy satellite?
MR MILLER: I’m just not going to speak to that before we’ve made a formal assessment. And with that, we’ll wrap for today. I hope everyone has a safe and restful and peaceful Thanksgiving. Thank you all.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:11 p.m.)
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