State Dept Presser – Dec 18, 2023
The US State Dept Spokesman Matthew Miller held a press briefing on Dec 18, 2023.
Some excerpts with Q-A on India, Afghanistan and Pakistan tweaked to appear upfront.
MR MILLER: Good afternoon, everyone. I will start with an update on our work to increase the delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza.
On Sunday, Kerem Shalom – a crossing between Israel and Gaza – opened for the first time for the movement of aid into Gaza. The opening of this additional crossing, which we had been working to achieve for some time, will alleviate the strain on Rafah and dramatically expand the amount of aid flowing to innocent Palestinian civilians who need it most.
Second, for the first time since October 7th, trucks carrying commercial goods moved into Gaza on Saturday. Additional commercial trucks are planned to enter Gaza today, and we hope to see this channel solidified and expanded over the coming days. It is a critical step towards improving the lives of the Palestinian people in Gaza that we see not just humanitarian aid delivered, but also commercial goods that can be sold in stores and markets.
These two important steps forward came as the result of intensive diplomacy conducted by Secretary Blinken, Special Envoy David Satterfield, and others across the United States Government, who have worked not just to open channels for the delivery of food, water, and medicine to Palestinians, but also to ensure the amount of assistance that flows through those channels is sustained.
While this weekend’s breakthroughs are important, they are also not – by themselves not sufficient. We will continue to work closely with the governments of Israel, Egypt, and partner countries in the region to further increase the humanitarian assistance flowing into Gaza to address the needs of the Palestinian people.
QUESTION: Thank you, Matt. Thank you so much. Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News. Sir, Pakistani army chief and ISA chief was here in town. They met with Secretary Blinken. Can you share some details about that meeting?
MR MILLER: I don’t have any specific readout, other than that, as you know, he was in Washington to meet with a number of officials, including officials here at the State Department, including officials at the Pentagon and elsewhere. Pakistan is a major non-NATO ally of the United States and a NATO partner. We look forward to partnering with them on regional security and defense cooperation, and that’s the – what was the substance of the meetings last —
QUESTION: Sir, the Pakistani army chief is at the center of criticism for – for his involvement in politics. Sir, you always talk about democratic values and freedom of speech. What are you going to say about those who are trying to disrupt the political system of Pakistan?
MR MILLER: So we continue to support free, fair elections in Pakistan. That is the – and engage with Pakistan on a bilateral basis to discuss our support for free and fair elections. As I’ve said before, we don’t take a position as it comes to – when it comes to political parties in Pakistan, and we will engage with the leaders that the Pakistani people select.
QUESTION: Two questions, please. One, as far as U.S.-India relations are concerned, how would you review the 2023 between the two countries’ diplomatic relations and other relations? Also, how are the relations between Secretary Blinken and the Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar?
MR MILLER: I would say that the Secretary has a close, productive working relationship with his counterpart. We have welcomed him here in the past couple months, and of course, the Secretary has travelled to India twice just since September, I believe it is. President Biden has travelled to India this year. India is a major partner of ours, one whom this administration has focused a great deal of time and attention to working with, and we’ll continue to do so in the new year.
QUESTION: Okay. And second, sir, Prime Minister Modi is very famous among global leaders, including here in the U.S. – President Biden among others – and also in the Middle East, Arab nations, and, of course, with Russia.
What I’m asking you is: What India or Prime Minister Modi can do more to bring – end these two wars, Israel’s war against terrorist Hamas and Russia’s war against Ukraine?
MR MILLER: So I would say that we would welcome India’s constructive engagement in these two matters, as we welcome constructive engagement from countries around the world.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Matt. Two questions. One: Last week 21 Pakistani soldiers were killed by the Taliban. The weapons they were using were the American weapons which President Biden’s left in Afghanistan, worth billions of dollars. And I raised this question here before as well: What’s the State Department reaction to that, an ally getting killed by their weapon? That’s my first question, if you have any reaction to that.
MR MILLER: So we express our condolences to those who lost their lives.
QUESTION: And second, right now the trend from Afghanistan, which for last eight years – again – heroin is something that I continuously – to raise questions about since last many years. Now the trend is that they believe that heroin is bad but opium is okay. So the opium is going to China, and from China it’s coming to the U.S. This is the new trend. While the U.S. was in Afghanistan, it did not do much, in my opinion, about stopping that trade, and that trade continues to happen, and that opium gets to turn into heroin and it lands in the street of the United States the most.
What more reactions, what more actions is the U.S. going to do about it?
MR MILLER: So, I would say that the primary – not the sole, but the primary responsibility for investigating and policing international drug trafficking rests, of course, with the Justice Department, and I would let them speak to that. But we at the State Department here, do play a role through our diplomatic engagements in pressing countries to do more to crack down on the trafficking of narcotics that have killed so many Americans, and we’ll continue to do so.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. Well, would you say that opening Kerem Shalom improves the lives of the Palestinians in Gaza, but wouldn’t not killing them improve the lives of Palestinians in Gaza?
MR MILLER: I think Hamas surrendering and – could – and stopping using them —
QUESTION: Well, you know that that’s not going to happen.
MR MILLER: Well, stopping – there’s no reason why it can’t happen. I mean, as much as people call on Israel to take steps, Hamas has – bears responsibility here.
MR MILLER: And Hamas stopping using them as human shields when Israel is trying to target Hamas for the attacks it conducted on October 7th would also do a great deal to protect innocent Palestinian civilians.
QUESTION: Right, but you would accept – you would accept, wouldn’t you, that it doesn’t matter how much humanitarian aid is going in if everyone’s dead?
MR MILLER: It is a very difficult situation we are in right now. We are trying to accomplish two things. Number one, to minimize civilian harm, to work with the Israel Government and the Israeli military on steps that they can take to protect civilians, including establishing deconfliction sites, and also to get humanitarian assistance in. That is also important to ensure that the Palestinian civilians who are there have food, water, medicine, other critical needs.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, this was all in lead-up to a question that I was originally going to ask before you opened with that, which is: How are you guys going to vote on this UN Security Council resolution today?
MR MILLER: We are working through with countries on the Security Council right now what the final text of that resolution will be, and I don’t have anything I can speak to now, I think some three and a half hours before the vote.
QUESTION: Do you think that there is any way that there could be language negotiated that would allow you to vote for it rather – or is abstention the best that anyone can hope for?
MR MILLER: So there was a previous Security Council resolution around a month ago that we voted for that relates to the conflict in Gaza. So we are always trying to get to a place where there is language that we agree with, that other Security Council members agree with. But right now, when we’re in the middle of the negotiation process, I wouldn’t want to speculate or (inaudible).
QUESTION: Matt, just on CIA chief Bill Burns has met with the Qatari prime minister on the hostages. I’m wondering if there is anything you can offer on that? Is there any renewed optimism for a new deal on the hostages?
MR MILLER: So we would absolutely look to achieve a new humanitarian pause that would allow the release of hostages. The first one was a major priority for the United States. We worked to achieve it across a number of different channels. And of course that humanitarian pause was successful in securing the release of more than a hundred hostages, and increased humanitarian assistance moving into Gaza, because once you have sustained pauses, humanitarian assistance that gets into Gaza can more safely and easily move around to the people that actually need it.
So we would absolutely support reaching a deal to achieve those positive outcomes again, but I very much wouldn’t want to handicap it. We had a pause that was working well and Hamas reneged on the commitments it had made and launched terrorist attacks and refused to release hostages that it had agreed to do. And that led to the collapse of the first pause. So I never want to bet on Hamas’s good faith, but we absolutely will try to pursue a resolution here.
QUESTION: Right. And on what Matt was saying, U.S. has put in a lot of diplomacy on trying to get the Israelis to put in more protections for civilians. And Secretary was there and he departed from Israel December the 1st, and then after southern Gaza offensive has started, and you guys have been sort of reluctant to weigh in on how Israel has conducted the southern Gaza offensive. You said it’s too early to make an assessment, so would you like to make an assessment right now on, like —
MR MILLER: So since I said that, you have seen – you have seen – sorry to interrupt if there was —
MR MILLER: Since I’ve said that, you’ve seen the Secretary come out and say that there is very clearly a gap between intent and results, and that we’ve seen Israel express an intent to minimize civilian casualties, but we continue to see too many Palestinians die. And so that’s why we continue to engage with them on additional measures they can take on deconfliction sites, on doing everything within their power to minimize civilian harm.
QUESTION: Right. So that was what I was getting at. Have you seen over the past couple of days – because, I mean, Jake Sullivan was there and Secretary Austin is there as well, and they’re sort of making this a priority. Have you seen over the past couple of days any assurance, anything new, any new plan from the Israelis to suggest that there is going to be much more concrete steps in place to ensure civilian protection?
MR MILLER: So I’m not going to speak to the meetings that the National Security Advisor had –White House, of course, can speak to those – and I’m not going to speak to the meetings that the Secretary of Defense just concluded today. His team can obviously – who are with him on the ground in Israel can obviously speak to those in more detail. What I will say is that we continue to engage with them on the importance of taking concrete steps to minimize civilian harm, and that includes predictable pauses so people know when they can move around. It includes deconfliction sites so people know that there are places they can be where they’re – they will not be fired on.
So we will continue to have those conversations. But as I said at the beginning, we do also have to remember that Hamas could make all of this easier if they would come out from hiding behind civilians and surrender, put down their arms, and stop putting civilians in the way of this – or in the middle of this very difficult situation.
Go ahead, Barbara.
QUESTION: Thank you. Do you see any substantive difference between the UK and German call for a sustainable ceasefire and the U.S. position, which my understanding is that the war should not end until Hamas’s military capability and leadership have been destroyed?
MR MILLER: So I will say what – I read that that piece by the German and British foreign ministers. I saw very clearly they said that they do not support a ceasefire now because Israel has a legitimate right to defend itself and take action against a terrorist organization that has said it wants to continue to carry out attacks like the attacks of October 7th, but they would support at some point a sustainable ceasefire.
I will say on behalf of the United States, we, of course, want this conflict to end, and we want it to end in a way that ensures the security of the Israeli people, that ensures the security of the Palestinian people. And ultimately, we think ending the conflict and leaving the plotters who planned the October 7th attacks in place to continue carrying out attacks, to continue plotting against innocent civilians in Israel, is not in the security interests of Israel, but it’s not – also not in the security interests of the Palestinian people, and it’s not in the security interests of anyone in the region.
So while we of course want to achieve an end to the fighting as soon as possible, we think that it’s important that the Israeli Government be able to continue to carry out the campaign which has a very legitimate objective, which is to ensure that Hamas cannot continue to carry out attacks as it did on October 7th. The status quo that existed before October 7th obviously did not produce peace for Israel or the Palestinian people, and we think returning to that is not a positive step forward for the region.
QUESTION: So it sounds like you’re saying you basically – there’s more that you agree on than disagree on in terms of the calling for a ceasefire, the UK and German – it sounds like you think you’re on the same page.
MR MILLER: Again, I – you can characterize my remarks how you’d like. I would repeat what I just said. We have had close coordination with the German and British governments and will continue to do so, but as I said, I took notice of the line in that piece where they very clearly said they are not calling for an immediate ceasefire for the same reasons that I just articulated.
QUESTION: And one more question. Have you seen anything more from the Israelis about their claims of a major command and control center under Shifa Hospital? It was one of the things that they were putting forward in terms of explaining why so many civilians were being killed and why the hospitals were being targeted or being caught in the line of crossfire. They did end up coming out with, I think, a bunker and a tunnel and a couple of guns, but it didn’t really add up to what they had been advertising in terms of Hamas directing its operations from underneath hospitals. Obviously, they have a huge, sophisticated tunnel system. We saw some of that at Erez at the weekend. But the fact that Hamas is directing its operations from under hospitals and therefore they become part of the war – so have you see anything more convincing from the Israelis than what they put out?
MR MILLER: Let me say a few things about that. Number one, we had evidence that Hamas was operating underneath al-Shifa Hospital before Israel attacked, and made that clear before Israel launched its operation in the vicinity of the hospital that we had seen evidence and believed it to be true; and we stand by that evidence.
Number two, we’ve seen things that the Israeli Government has shown to us. We’ve seen the information that they’ve made public that do show bunkers underneath the hospital, that show tunnels underneath the hospital, and show recovered weapons from the hospital.
The third thing I will say is one of the reasons Hamas has an extensive tunnel network in the first place is so when Israel is targeting any one site, that they can move underground to extricate themselves from that site and make it to safety. That is the entire reason that they built this tunnel network.
The fourth thing I will say is I don’t think anyone should expect that a Hamas command and control center is going to look like the White House Situation Room. It’s a terrorist organization who is hiding itself underground behind civilians. And I think to expect that it was going to look like what you see from a modern government is just not – I don’t think that’s —
QUESTION: Well, if the Israelis really said —
MR MILLER: Oh, just let me finish. I don’t think is a realistic expectation. But that said, we are confident, and remain confident both based on what we knew before the operation, what we’ve seen since the operation, that Hamas was using al-Shifa as a command-and-control post, as it uses other civilian sites to hide terrorist infrastructure, to hide weapons, to hide fighters, and ultimately to use civilians as human shields.
QUESTION: Right, just – I would just add that, as you know, the Israeli did release these videos beforehand showing how sophisticated it all was, and it wasn’t quite what they came up with.
MR MILLER: You can judge for yourself the – what we saw versus that – I think it was a – it wasn’t really a video, it was an animation, I think – beforehand. But what we saw and what we knew to be the case before the operation at al-Shifa confirmed to us that yes, Hamas was using it as a command-and-control center.
QUESTION: Now, you said that Israel’s goal – a legitimate goal, as you called it – is to make sure that Hamas is unable to conduct anything similar to October. But I thought the stated goals early on were to decapitate Hamas, hunt its leaders, and basically really – free the hostages and have a new regime. Have they achieved that? So, are we shifting goals now?
MR MILLER: We are not shifting goals. Obviously, they have not achieved the release of all the hostages, which again, as I said before, is not –
QUESTION: Or any of them. Or any of them. Or any of them by – I’m saying –
MR MILLER: There have been over a hundred hostages – hold it – hostages released.
QUESTION: With negotiations, but not by force.
MR MILLER: Right. They did also execute a military operation quite early on where they rescued – rescued a hostage.
QUESTION: Right, okay. But let me ask you something. How would this surrender take shape? Because Hamas is not an army. It’s not like – we’re not going to see what we saw, let’s say, the Iraqis do in that famous tent and so on, or what the Japanese did on board of an American ship. So how would this surrender take shape? Would all fighters need to come out and lay their arms – all of them? We don’t know how many of them – maybe 10,000, whatever – so they come and they say, now we surrender? Is that the shape that – is that the form of surrender that you are asking?
MR MILLER: So let me give you a start. Sinwar, the leader of Hamas, could come up from his tunnel today, could lay down his arms and surrender himself and take responsibility. Now, I don’t have any notion that he is about to do that.
MR MILLER: He hasn’t shown that the – that he cares one whit for the Palestinian public up to date. So I have no reason to believe he would do that. But I make the point to again reinforce that Hamas does bear some responsibility, a great deal of responsibility, for what happened here as the person who started this conflict in the first place, or the entity that started the conflict.
QUESTION: And my last question on the journalists. A lot of journalists have been killed, maybe 90, and so on. Do you have any doubt that Israel intentionally targets journalists?
MR MILLER: So we have not seen evidence that Israel is intentionally targeting journalists. Obviously, we have seen a number, dozens of journalists, die as a result of this conflict. Saw one, Samer Abudaqa, from Al Jazeera who was just killed in recent days.
MR MILLER: And as we have said before, we mourn every journalist who has given their life in covering this conflict, in bringing information to the American public and to people all around the world. We think the work that the free press does is critical to democracy, especially in conflict zones where, unfortunately, far too many do pay this sacrifice, and our condolences go out to all of their families.
And in other – and there are cases where, when we have seen actions that we thought warranted, we have raised questions with the Israeli Government and sought more information. You saw us do that with respect to the Reuters journalist who was killed in Lebanon. And we will continue to do so, and we will continue to encourage Israel to comply with their own rules of engagement and comply with international humanitarian law. And whenever – if we ever see signs that they are not, we will of course be very clear about that with them.
QUESTION: Thank you. On the intent of Israelis to minimize civilian casualties, a few days ago, a mother and a daughter were sheltering inside Gaza’s only Catholic church, and they were – and they died, and also three Israeli hostages were killed even though they were shirtless and they were waving, like, a white cloth. How is it possible that this is, like, mistakenly shot, even though they were, like, just holding a white cloth?
MR MILLER: I will say with respect to the death of those three hostages, obviously it’s a tragic incident, extremely unfortunate, as it is tragic when any civilian is killed. And I will say we noted the comments by the Israeli defense chief, who came out and reiterated after that shooting that he fully expects everyone in the Israeli military to act within the rules of engagement. He said that those shootings were outside of the Israeli rules of engagement, and that goes to the point I was making a moment ago about what we expect from a professional military in a democracy, which is when there are actions that are inappropriate, that violate the rules, that violate the laws of war, that those militaries take actions to investigate them and actions, if appropriate —
QUESTION: Yeah, but there are too many actions lately. Like, why did they bomb a church, a Catholic church? Why would they target a Catholic church where a mother and her daughter were killed?
MR MILLER: I will say as always it’s very tough for me to speak to specific incidents when oftentimes there will be disputed facts. We did see those reports. We were quite concerned by them. We’ve been raising those concerns directly with the Israeli Government. One of the things that we have advocated from the beginning of this conflict is deconfliction sites to ensure that schools and churches and hospitals are not attacked. And when we have concerns, we will continue to raise them with the Israeli Government.
QUESTION: Yeah, do you have any update on the situation on the border of Lebanon de-escalation?
MR MILLER: I don’t, other than that it continues to be a priority for us to ensure that this conflict does not widen. Go ahead. I’ll come to you next, Alex.
QUESTION: Thank you, Matt. The U.S. signed a DCA with Finland this morning. And the Secretary announced that there will be another one with Denmark later this week. We, of course, also witnessed earlier this month you had DCA with Sweden. How concerned is the Secretary about the threats coming from Russia against these countries, particularly Putin pointing at Finland and Sweden over the weekend, saying that there was no trouble but there will be?
MR MILLER: I would say that we continue to be concerned about Russia’s aggression broadly. And one of the things you’ve heard the President say is that one of the – that the reason why it is so important that we support Ukraine is that we don’t assess that Putin would be satisfied and would stop at Ukraine if he were able to ultimately conquer Ukraine and subjugate it to Russia. And so we – and I will say you have countries in Europe express this same concern. It’s not a secret, I think, that, that was one of the motivating factors for Finland to join NATO and for Sweden to seek to join NATO. And so I wouldn’t characterize our level of concern with respect to any of these individual countries. I will just say you’ve seen a Russia that has shown an – a willingness and an eagerness to use its military to conquer its neighbors by force, so of course we want to take to try to deter that.
QUESTION: Thank you. And when it comes to measures against Russia, do you have any comment on EU’s – today’s decision on a 12th sanctions package against Russia? Do you support it? Are you encouraged by —
MR MILLER: So we have coordinated with the EU on those sanctions, as we have with the EU on sanctions since the outset of this conflict. We continue to work with the EU and with the G7 and our other partners around the world to ensure that the sanctions we have imposed are tightened and we seek out and hold accountable those who try to evade our sanctions and impose new sanctions if we do see the ones we have being eroded in any way, and we’ll continue to do that.
QUESTION: Do you have anything to say about the Serbian elections? The opposition is crying foul. Do you have anything to say about the – either the result or about the process?
MR MILLER: So we are reviewing the OSCE’s preliminary findings and conclusions with respect to this election. We welcome the opportunity to continue working with Serbia’s next government to strengthen democratic governance and rule of law and to advance regional stability, continue economic growth, and accelerate progress on Serbia’s path to EU membership.
QUESTION: Okay. But as for the allegations from the opposition about irregularities —
MR MILLER: The OSCE has issued preliminary findings and conclusions, not their final findings, and we are reviewing those. And I wouldn’t want to comment while that review is ongoing.
Janne, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Matt. One on North Korea, one on China. Regarding North Korea’s ICBM launches, North Korea criticized the United States and South Korea NCG – I mean Nuclear Consultative Group – meeting after launching a long-range ICBM yesterday. How will the United States respond to this? And what are the result of United States analyst of North Korea’s missile launches so far?
MR MILLER: The United States strongly condemns the DPRK’s December 17th and 18th ballistic missile launches, including the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. These launches are in violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions. They pose a threat to the DPRK’s neighbors and undermine regional security. We urge all countries to condemn these violations and to fully implement relevant UN Security Council resolutions which are in place to impede the DPRK’s unlawful WMD and ballistic missile programs.
QUESTION: Chinese foreign minister and North Korea’s vice foreign minister met in Beijing yesterday, the day North Korea launched its ICBM, to discuss strengthen strategic cooperation between China and North Korea. How do you view the solidarity between China and North Korea, which is tolerating North Korea’s ICBM launches?
MR MILLER: So one of the things that Secretary Blinken has discussed with his Chinese counterparts in his meetings over the last six months now is that we do believe that there is a constructive role that China could play to try to constrain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and we would welcome playing that role and we will continue to urge them to do so.
QUESTION: Like with Ukraine, will the U.S. support Israel for however long it needs?
MR MILLER: We have said that we are going to continue to stand by Israel. They are a longtime ally of the United States, and we will continue to support them in what we think is a justifiable campaign to respond to brutal terrorist attacks and ensure that they can never be repeated.
QUESTION: With the latest in Yemen, is the administration considering redesignating the Houthis as a terrorist group?
MR MILLER: So we have said that we are considering that step. I don’t have any updates on it.
QUESTION: Can I ask a question on Sweden?
MR MILLER: Go ahead. Go ahead.
QUESTION: I asked you Thursday on the issue of Sweden, the problem with Türkiye. And yesterday the Secretary called the foreign minister of Türkiye on this issue, as I – as we understand from your announcement. But also, the president of Türkiye says, and I quote, that he expects American Government to approve at the same time the sale of F-16 jets to Ankara in exchange for ratifying Sweden’s bid to join the NATO Alliance.
First, can you tell us if the Secretary and Mr. Fidan discussed the issue of F-16 yesterday? And second, do you accept the proposal by the president – the president of Türkiye?
MR MILLER: Well, I’m certainly not going to negotiate in public about these matters. I will say that we have made clear that we support the sale of F-16s to Türkiye. Secretary Blinken made that clear again in his call, as we have made clear for some time now. But as we’ve said, there are people on the Hill who have linked that sale to Sweden’s accession to NATO, and we need to see that accession as soon as possible.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Matt. Given that Secretary Blinken expects a peaceful Palestinian Authority to coexist with Israel, despite the fact that the Meir Amit Center, in its review of more – a thousand Palestinian Authority textbooks, does not find one book that even mentions one word about peace, does the U.S. approve of the fact that UNRWA takes – that’s the UN agency UNRWA – takes its textbooks directly from the Palestinian Authority without any supervision? And if so, where does Secretary Blinken get his optimism? And I had a follow-up.
MR MILLER: Well, I would say certainly we – you’ve heard us say that we believe the Palestinian Authority can be revamped, it can be revitalized. We don’t agree with everything that the Palestinian Authority does, just as we don’t agree with things that others around – everything that others around the world do. But we have seen the Palestinian Authority play a very constructive role in the aftermath of October 7th in maintaining stability in the West Bank. And we believe that a path forward at the end of this conflict is for the Palestinian Authority, as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, to exercise a leadership role in a reunited West Bank and Gaza.
QUESTION: Okay. In light of our federal law that – the Taylor Force Act that prohibits the government from sending American tax – taxpayer dollars to the Palestinian Authority until it stops supporting terrorism. Why does Secretary Blinken’s response to continued U.S. funding the Palestinian Authority – that continues their pay-to-slay program that encourages terrorist attacks against persons living in and visiting the State of Israel in direct violation of our Taylor Force Act?
MR MILLER: We comply fully with the Taylor Force Act. As I said, we do also believe that the Palestinian Authority has to play a leadership role moving forward. The – there is going to be an end to this conflict at some point, and at the end of this conflict there needs to be an answer to the question of who governs Gaza, who governs the West Bank. And that question needs to be ultimately determined by the Palestinian people. And right now the Palestinian Authority is the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and we will look to them to play that role.
QUESTION: Well, fair – I just want to ask: How are we complying with the Taylor Force Act?
MR MILLER: We comply with all of its various rules and regulations.
QUESTION: Matthew. I’d like to take you to Hong Kong. Jimmy Lai’s trial now underway. I saw the State Department’s statement on it just the other day condemning the prosecution. That said, does the State Department believe Jimmy Lai has any chance at all of getting a fair trial in what many are calling a sham trial?
MR MILLER: So I would say that we do strongly condemn the prosecution of Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy advocate and media owner. He’s been prosecuted under the national security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong. We call for his immediate and unconditional release. And yes, of course we have deep concerns about the deterioration in protection for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong, and that includes the rule of law.
QUESTION: Do you think your call for his immediate release will be answered?
MR MILLER: I will just say that we will make clear our position; we will make clear our priorities. We don’t think he should have been detained in the first place and we think he should be released immediately.
QUESTION: And one more quickly. He’s a devout Catholic. U.S. Catholic bishops have called for his release. How much of a role, if any, do you believe his Catholic faith played in China targeting him?
MR MILLER: Again, I wouldn’t want to – I wouldn’t want to speculate about that, but I’d say that we do think he very much is being targeted for the pro-democracy actions that he’s taken and should be released immediately.
QUESTION: Could I have a follow-up just quickly?
MR MILLER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: There were some calls particularly from the Hill to change the status of Hong Kong’s missions in the United States. They have diplomatic – this predates the crackdown. Does the administration have a stance on that?
MR MILLER: Let me take that back.
QUESTION: May I?
MR MILLER: Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. What can we expect in the Kosovo talks during the U.S. election year of 2024, specifically given that the establishment of the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities have not been formed and despite the explicit stance of the U.S. that this is a legally binding obligation for Prime Minister Albin Kurti to establish that?
MR MILLER: I’m going to have to take that one back as well and get you an answer.
QUESTION: Matt, I have two questions. Today marks two months since Alsu Kurmasheva’s arrest. Russia’s independent human rights group, Memorial, designated her as a political prisoner. Do you agree with that assessment?
MR MILLER: I’m not going to speak to that assessment, but I will say that we continue to call for her – we continue to engage with the Russian Government to seek more information on her case.
QUESTION: Any update on designating her arrest —
MR MILLER: No.
QUESTION: And one on Azerbaijan, if I may. The opposition figure – leading opposition figure, Tofig Yagublu, got arrested over the weekend in light of ongoing crackdown against critics ahead of the election. What was your reaction, and any position do you have on the snap elections in the country?
MR MILLER: So the recent trend of detaining journalists, civil society activists, and opposition figures in Azerbaijan is deeply troubling. Over a dozen such figures have been detained in just the last month. It’s unacceptable, and we will continue to urge the Azerbaijani Government to respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all, including those exercising freedom of expression, as well as call for the expeditious release of all those who were – have been – who have been unjustly detained.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Two questions for Israel-Gaza. First of all, the Biden administration repeatedly made it clear that the United States opposes Gaza controlled by Hamas, and says Gaza should be governed by the revitalized Palestinian Authority. So the United States is in contact with Ramallah? And last week, Mr. Jake Sullivan was in Ramallah to – and Secretary Blinken visited Ramallah and talked with the Palestinian Authority leadership there. So is there a plan for Palestinian Authority ruling Gaza Strip – like, for example, sending a representative to Gaza Strip after the war?
MR MILLER: I think we are putting the cart a little bit before the horse here. Israel is still conducting major military operations. But we do continue to discuss these questions and many others as it relates to post-conflict governance with the Palestinian Authority, with the Government of Israel, and with other countries in the region.
QUESTION: The United States is also against the Israel reoccupation of Gaza. You made it clear from that podium, and the Biden administration made it clear from different levels. And the United States expects Israel to leave Gaza after the conflict ends. So beyond the wishes and expectations, the United States is the first country on Earth who’s able to convince Israel what to do or what not to do. I’m not suggesting that you are telling Israel what to do and what not to do, but you are able to do so. So can the United States give assurances to the world that Israel will leave Gaza after the conflict and Israel will not decide or determine the future of Gaza unilaterally?
MR MILLER: What I can give you assurances is what the United States will do, and that is to continue to make clear that there cannot be a reoccupation of Gaza. Yes, there will need to be some transition period at the end of this conflict so there is not a security vacuum on the ground. But ultimately, as the Secretary has been very clear and the President has been very clear, there cannot be a reoccupation of Gaza. And I would say that ultimately, this goes to a different – different but related point that I was making earlier: that is not just in the interests of the Palestinian people, but we believe it’s in the interest of the Israeli people as well.
QUESTION: I’ll be very brief. On your choice of words – one regarding Israel and one regarding the Palestinian Authority. You said in an answer to an earlier question that Israel is a, quote/unquote, longstanding “ally of the United States.” Now, Israel is many things. It’s a friend. It’s a strategic partner. But there is no alliance between the —
MR MILLER: Partner. Partner.
QUESTION: So you haven’t changed —
MR MILLER: Point taken. Partner.
QUESTION: You haven’t slipped “ally” in officially, capital A?
MR MILLER: Partner. Partner. Thank you for the edit and preventing me from having to put an asterisk in the transcript now. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: And then on the – for the PA, you said in response to two questions that the Palestinian Authority is the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. What – how do you come to that assessment? When was the last time the PA was elected?
MR MILLER: It was – I don’t know – it was in the 2000s, I believe. They are the representative of the Palestinian people and they are —
QUESTION: As you know, the Palestinian Authority is – particularly President Abbas is deeply unpopular with the Palestinian people.
MR MILLER: And we believe that we should see —
QUESTION: But you still think that they are the legitimate —
MR MILLER: They are —
QUESTION: — that they speak for all Palestinians?
MR MILLER: I don’t think there is any one government that speaks for every member of its community, of its constituency.
QUESTION: But they are the legitimate – that they are – but you do believe that they are the ones who can act or who should be acting on behalf of the Palestinian people?
MR MILLER: Yes, a revamped, revitalized Palestinian Authority.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, what about the current one?
MR MILLER: Well, it is —
QUESTION: That is un-revamped and un-revitalized.
MR MILLER: Well, the current Palestinian Authority, with reforms, with revitalization. Yes.
QUESTION: Well, but – yeah, but what – now, who represents the Palestinian people? I mean, obviously you —
MR MILLER: The Palestinian Authority does.
QUESTION: Even though it’s not revitalized and revamped?
MR MILLER: They are – well, what I am referring to when I talk about a revamped, revitalized Palestinian Authority is for a Palestinian Authority to govern Gaza, you are going to have to see a revitalization just in terms of presence.
QUESTION: Yeah, but – well, okay.
MR MILLER: They don’t have the forces to —
QUESTION: Does that mean that there has to be an election to —
MR MILLER: We support free and fair elections. I think you can’t really have an election in the —
QUESTION: Okay. Well, the last Palestinian election free and fair – free and fair was in Gaza, and Hamas won.
MR MILLER: And we support free and fair elections going forward. I think you can’t hold an election in the middle of a conflict, obviously. There needs to be a transition process to establish that.
QUESTION: Tell that to Assad.
MR MILLER: But that’s what we support for the Palestinian people as we do for anyone in the world.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:17 p.m.)
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