By Julian Borger, The Guardian, 31 May 2024

WASHINGTON - Stacy Gilbert, who quit post as senior adviser on Tuesday, says report went against consensus of experts.

The state department falsified a report earlier this month to absolve Israel of responsibility for blocking humanitarian aid flows into Gaza, overruling the advice of its own experts, according to a former senior US official who resigned this week.

Stacy Gilbert left her post as senior civil military adviser in the state department’s bureau of population, refugees and migration, on Tuesday. She had been one of the department’s subject matter experts who drafted the report mandated under national security memorandum 20 (NSM-20) and published on 10 May.

The NSM-20 report found that it was “reasonable to assess” that Israel had used US weapons in a way that was “inconsistent” with international humanitarian law, but that there was not enough concrete evidence to link specific US-supplied weapons to violations.

Even more controversially, the report said the state department did not “currently assess that the Israeli government is prohibiting or otherwise restricting the transport or delivery of US humanitarian assistance” in Gaza.

It was a high-stakes judgment because under a clause in the Foreign Assistance Act, the US would be obliged to cut arms sales and security assistance to any country found to have blocked delivery of US aid.

Gilbert, a 20-year veteran of the state department who has worked in several war zones, said that report’s conclusion went against the overwhelming view of state department experts who were consulted on the report.

She said there was general agreement that while other factors impeded the flow of aid into Gaza at a time when famine has begun to take hold of its 2.3 million population – such as lack of security, caused by Hamas, Israeli military operations and the desperation of Palestinians to find food – it was clear that Israel was playing a role in limiting the amount of food and medical supplies crossing the border into Gaza.

“There is consensus among the humanitarian community on that. It is absolutely the opinion of the humanitarian subject matter experts in the state department, and not just in my bureau – people who look at this from the intelligence community and from other bureaus. I would be very hard pressed to think of anyone who has said [Israeli obstruction] is not an issue,” Gilbert said. “That’s why I object to that report saying that Israel is not blocking humanitarian assistance. That is patently false.”

Asked about Gilbert’s allegations, a state department spokesperson, Vedant Patel, said on Thursday: “We stand by the national security memorandum 20 report. We are not an administration or a department that twists the facts, and allegations that we have are unfounded.”

“As any report and as any process that is undertaken in a policymaking process, these processes are deliberative and they involve inputs from people at a variety of seniority and expert levels,” Patel added.

Gilbert was one of the experts consulted in drawing up the NSM-20 report, but she said it was taken out of their hands as it approached completion.

“Sometime at the end of April, the subject matter experts were taken off the report and we were told it would be edited at a higher level. So I did not know what was in the report until it came out,” she said. “But when the report came out, late on the Friday afternoon [on 10 May], I read it and I had to reread it. I had to go back and print out that section and read it, because I could not believe it stated so starkly that we assess that Israel is not blocking humanitarian assistance.

“Two hours after it was released, I sent an email to my front office and the team that is working on this, saying I will resign as a result of this,” Gilbert said.

According to the Democratic senator Chris Van Hollen, the NSM-20 report “should have been based on an unvarnished assessment of the facts and law.”

“Stacy Gilbert’s statements further corroborate the concerns I have expressed that the findings of the bureaus and experts most involved with the distribution of aid and compliance with international law were bypassed in favor of political convenience,” said Van Hollen.

Gilbert was one of two US officials to resign this week over the Biden administration’s Gaza policy. Alexander Smith, a contractor for the US Agency for International Development (USAid), who resigned on Monday, said he was given a choice between resignation and dismissal after preparing a presentation on maternal and child mortality among Palestinians, which was cancelled at the last minute by USAid leadership last week.

Smith, a senior adviser on gender, maternal health, child health and nutrition, chose to resign on Monday after four years at USAid. In his resignation letter to the head of the agency, Samantha Power, he complained about the inconsistencies in USAid’s approach to different countries and humanitarian crises, and the general treatment of Palestinians.

“I cannot do my job in an environment in which specific people cannot be acknowledged as fully human, or where gender and human rights principles apply to some, but not to others, depending on their race,” he wrote.

Smith and Gilbert bring the total number of Biden administration officials to have publicly resigned over US policy on Gaza to nine, though Josh Paul, the first official to resign, said that at least two dozen more had left quietly, without a public declaration.

“I’m aware that there are other resignations pending in the near future from officials with similar concerns in their own areas of work,” said Paul, now a senior adviser at Dawn, a group advocating democracy and human rights in the Middle East and north Africa.

Asked about Smith’s resignation, a USAid official said the agency could not discuss “specific personnel matters and why this individual is no longer employed by their contractor for USAid”.

“Hundreds of staff across the agency are working tirelessly to accelerate aid, to advocate for greater protections for civilians and the improvement of deconfliction, and to advance diplomatic efforts,” a USAid spokesperson said. “Additionally, agency leadership continues to engage candidly with staff about USAid’s work and perspectives on the conflict through a range of meetings, town halls, and other forums.”

The resignations have come as famine is spreading in Gaza, with only a trickle of humanitarian assistance arriving through land crossings controlled by Israel, and the collapse of a US-made pier intended for food deliveries, severely damaged by a Mediterranean storm earlier this week.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his war cabinet, have defied Biden by pursuing an offensive on Gaza’s southernmost city, Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians had sought refuge from the Israeli assault. More than 900,000 of them have been forced to flee from the bombing once more in recent weeks.