Department Press Briefing – February 5, 2024 – United States Department of State

MR PATEL:  Wow, packed house today.  Jeez.  Good afternoon, everybody.  I don’t have anything off the top.  Simon, would you care to kick us off?

QUESTION:  Sure.  The supplemental that came out from the Senate, some senators yesterday, included a line saying that the funding can’t go to the UN agency UNRWA.  And you’ve obviously suspended new aid to UNRWA, but does the administration support sort of putting the language in the legislation so that funding can’t be sent to this agency?

MR PATEL:  So look, broadly as it relates to the draft legislation, I think you saw the statement from the President over the weekend about the overall package and the administration’s support for it.  I am not going to get into sort of the back and forth or the internal deliberations of how we got to what version of the text or not.  

But I think to take a step back, Simon, the United States is pushing for an immediate and serious investigation into the allegations at UNRWA.  We’ve been talking about those for a couple of weeks now.  As you know, the United Nations has already launched an investigation.  The secretary general this morning just announced an independent review led by former French Foreign Minister Colonna on UNRWA policies and procedures with recommendations.  All of those things will be under review, I imagine.

From the U.S.’s perspective, we want to see concrete results for these approaches.  And meanwhile, we’re going to continue to consult closely with other donors on how to continue to meet urgent humanitarian needs in Gaza.  We also simultaneously – as you heard Matt talk about, we of course want to be able to continue supporting the important work that is happening in Gaza and the region, and we are looking at what options exist for supporting civilians in Gaza through partners like the World Food Programme, UNICEF, and other NGOs.

When it comes to the supplemental, all of this of course is public information.  The bill includes $10 billion in humanitarian assistance that the President requested.  That 10 billion is for global needs, including those impacted by the war in Ukraine as well as the conflict in Gaza.  Of that 10 billion, we expect 1.4 billion to be planned for Gaza.  This is tangible money that we believe will save lives and have a direct impact on Palestinian civilians.  And we will redirect funding for UNRWA to other partners to provide assistance in Gaza, some of those examples I gave – the World Food Programme, UNICEF, and other NGOs.  

This is a process we’re going to continue to work through with appropriate regional interlocutors and other donor countries as well.

QUESTION:  In terms of the importance of UNRWA itself, yeah, you can divert aid through other agencies.  But do you accept that doing so potentially – if UNRWA, as officials in UNRWA are saying, is really short of money and potentially unable to continue its operations, that’s going to reduce the impact of any other money you send to Gaza in other ways, right, in terms of — 

MR PATEL:  We have not been naïve about how critical we think UNRWA is both in Gaza but also the regional broadly, and the critical work that they do to aid and get aid to Palestinian civilians.  And that’s why this is something, one, as it relates to the allegations we took so seriously and appreciate the seriousness at which the United Nations is taking this; and two, as it relates to the supplemental, we believe that we can continue to do important work through other NGOs and other partners, and simultaneously we’ll continue to have conversations with donor countries about supporting UNRWA and ways that they can continue doing their important work in the region.

QUESTION:  And just to clarify, you referenced this new independent – the assessment that’s going to happen, the review of UNRWA.  Does – is the U.S. going to wait until the outcome of that?  That seems like that might take you a little – quite a while before you make a decision on renewing the UNRWA funding.  

MR PATEL:  I don’t have – I’m not going to preview a timeline from here.  I think we just want to at first see a process play out, and then we’ll go from there and take it step by step.

QUESTION:  Can I follow up on that?

QUESTION:  Thank you.  

QUESTION:  I mean, let’s face it.  UNRWA is a political issue.  It’s being pushed by pro-Israelis and spin and think tanks that actually sprung for this purpose, because they believe that cutting off aid to Palestinian refugees will simply liquidate the Palestinian issue, that the right of return that the Palestinians hang on would just simply disappear.  So I want to ask you:  Is the United States of America committed to continued funding of UNRWA?

MR PATEL:  Well, Said, that the – (sound).  Whoa, I wonder what that was.  

Said, obviously there is text in this pending legislation that would preclude us from doing so.  We are an administration that follows the law.  That being said, in this pending legislation there is $10 billion for humanitarian assistance, of which 1.4 billion is for humanitarian aid for Gaza.  This is an issue we take very seriously.  

We also believe, even prior to this conversation about the supplemental, we have, as I told Simon, been unambiguous, in my opinion, about the critical work that UNRWA does, not just in Gaza but in other parts of the region as well.  We think that the work they do is critical.  They are an important vehicle for getting humanitarian aid to those who need it.  And we’re going to continue to work with donor countries and UNRWA, as well as – as they work through this investigation and work through this internal matter that they’re dealing with, but also broadly to ensure that the Palestinian civilians that rely on this kind of work are able to get it.  

QUESTION:  Can I have a follow-up?

QUESTION: This whole investigation seems to have been launched because there’s allegedly 12 members of those who attacked on October 7th who are actually working with UNRWA – out of an employee population of 13,000.  

MR PATEL:  Said, it doesn’t matter — 

QUESTION:  13 – no, I’m – but — 

MR PATEL:  It doesn’t matter if it’s two or 12.  

QUESTION:  That’s fine. 

MR PATEL:  People participating in terrorism — 

QUESTION:  Right.  That’s fine.  

MR PATEL:  — in a terrorist attack in which 1,200 individuals were murdered is unacceptable to us.  

QUESTION:  The point – the point — 

MR PATEL:  And that is why we’ve called for these investigations.  

QUESTION:  I understand.  I understand your point.  

MR PATEL:  And we’ve called for – we’ve temporarily put UNRWA funding on pause.  But we also have said how important this issue is, and we want to see it worked through because we know how vital their work is.  

QUESTION:  So how are you responding to Lazzarini and Guterres, who stated very clearly that UNRWA has funding only till the end of this month – only till the end of this month, which is a very short month?  

MR PATEL:  Well, that is why it is our hope that this internal investigation and review is done so expeditiously and done so as quickly as possible so that there is – as Matt has spoken to previously, there is obligated funding that the United States had not transferred yet.  Simultaneously, we’re going to continue to work with donor countries to ensure that they can continue supporting UNRWA so this work can continue.  

QUESTION:  So lastly on this point, so what would be satisfactory to you in terms of how this investigation – where does it – where is it leading to, or where should it lead to?  

MR PATEL:  Said, we’ve spoken to this — 

QUESTION:  Arresting these people – arresting 12 people and so on, and that would be – we put the page behind us and that – is that — 

MR PATEL:  There of course needs to be accountability.  We’ve spoken to this before.  It’s not for us to be prescriptive here.  We of course are going to look at the assessments made from this internal investigation and go from there.  One, we of course want to see accountability.  We want to see steps taken and measures implemented so something like this can’t happen again.  And we want to see just an internal review of policies and procedures to double make sure that something like this isn’t repeated.  

QUESTION:  And on UNRWA, we heard that the Israeli minister of defense just issued a threat or whatever you want to call it just a few minutes ago that they are going into Rafah.  You have any comment on that?  You have any comment on what might happen next in Rafah, where you have such a concentration of those who have been displaced?  

MR PATEL:  So Said, I’ve not seen those comments.  And certainly, I’m not going to comment or opine on every military strategy or tactic that we hear discussed or floated or is reported on, as it relates to the Israelis conducting this operation.  What I will just say is that we have been pretty clear that Rafah is an important conduit for the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.  It is an important conduit for foreign nationals, including American citizens and LPRs, to be able to safely leave Gaza.  It is also – it is also somewhere where more than a million people are sheltering.  And so we of course would want any operation to be – being conducted in that in that region to take that into mind.  But of course I am not going to opine on it more specifically than that.

Let me go to Leon.  Nadia, I’ll come to you right after that.  Leon, go ahead.  

QUESTION:  I just wanted to come back to the UNRWA issue.  I mean, obviously I think the – well, the legislation doesn’t look like it’s going to go anywhere.  But aside from that, the administration has approved language to prohibit funding of UNRWA.  So I don’t know – how do you reconcile saying on the one hand that it’s doing a critical job, which you have said publicly, on the other – also saying that you’re checking with other donors, basically washing your hands financially of it and leaving it to other donors.  How do you reconcile that and accepting the language to prohibit funding, when you had announced a month ago or a couple of weeks ago that you were suspending funding?  

MR PATEL:  Well, Leon, in the American system Congress is a co-equal and a separate branch of government, and all of these things are discussions, negotiations, deliberations.  Again, as I said to Simon, I’m not going to get into the specifics of how we got to the text that we got.  I’m sure our colleagues at the White House might be happy to walk you through some of that.  But we’re not the only ones that have a say here.  

And so when it comes to using the dollar of the American taxpayer and where it goes and the things that it funds and the things that it supports, it is not only up to the Executive Branch.  And so these are conversations that we have and policies that we move forward in close coordination with our partners in Congress.  I would point you no further than the transcripts of the past I don’t know how many daily press briefings, where myself, Matt, Secretary Blinken, have talked about the vital role that UNRWA plays in the region.  And that is incredibly indicative of this administration’s point of view when it comes to their work. 

MR PATEL:  Now the text of this legislation is – where it landed is, of course, a deliberation with Congress.  And so simultaneously we’re going to take steps to ensure that aid can flow through other appropriate partners who do work in the region like the World Food Programme, like UNICEF, like other NGOs.  And we’ll continue to have this conversation not just with Congress but with donor countries as well.

And we also – I think it’s important to take a step back.  We also still need to see UNRWA work through its own investigation and work through its process before the United States is ready to unpause the funding that we have put on pause.  This is still very much an active process.  We have – while we certainly welcome the developments that are coming from the United Nations and UNRWA, we’re not ready to announce or share any change in policy at this time.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Vedant.  Two questions.  Since the ICJ ruling on January 26th which clearly called on Israel to avoid civilian casualties, 900 Palestinians have been killed, including women and children.  So is Israel heeding the message that you sent to them in terms of the casualties?  And what kind of, like, pressure are you putting on them trying to avoid – I mean, 900 in 10 days is a huge number. 

MR PATEL:  Any number above zero, Nadia, is heartbreaking.  We strongly believe that far too many civilians have lost their lives in this conflict.  Not just far too many civilians; far too many women and children have lost their lives over the course of this conflict.  And so at every step and at every turn, we will continue to make clear with the Israelis that international humanitarian law needs to be respected, steps need to be taken to minimize civilian casualties, additional steps need to be taken to minimize civilian casualties.  And I have no doubt that these are the very kinds of things you are going to hear Secretary Blinken raise with his counterparts on his travels in the region right now.

QUESTION:  Okay.  You were alarmed by the settlers’ violence in the West Bank, to the degree that you put sanction on them.  Are you equally alarmed and disturbed by the Israeli army torture of Palestinians?  There is emerging pictures that’s horrifying.  I am sure you’ve seen this picture, but one of them is basically an Israeli soldier – and this is what we know of through the social media.  You must have seen this picture.  This soldier has been identified as his name is Yosee Gamzoo, and he is from the Nahal Brigade.  This is an – this is a clear violation of international law, of the Geneva Convention, et cetera.  

So just equally as much as the violence of the settlers, this is the violence of an Israeli soldier.  This is an Israeli army that’s an allied of the United States.  Are this is acceptable to you?  And what do you do to hold these people accountable?  This is what we know from the social media.  This – the guy himself published this picture.  Imagine the things that we don’t know.

MR PATEL:  Thanks – thanks for your question, Nadia.  So first, as it relates to our sanctions, you’re absolutely right.  Peace, stability, and security in the West Bank is of utmost importance to us, and those participating in activities or actions that detract from that, that make the West Bank more destabilizing and risk the security situation, that is of course of great concern to us, and that’s why you saw the United States take appropriate action last week.

In relation to the image that you shared, I’ve not seen that image specifically.  But obviously, it is – it’s deeply troubling.  I have no knowledge or information as it relates to the circumstances surrounding that incident, and I will leave it to the IDF to speak to those specific situations.  But we have been clear to them that the respect for basic human rights, the respect for humanitarian law needs to be respected.  And those who do not comply with that need to be held accountable.

QUESTION:  So if I share this information with you, would you raise it with the Israelis?  

QUESTION:  I’m happy to share it with you. 

MR PATEL:  I’m not going to – I’m not going to get into specific situations here, Nadia.  This is not a operation that the United States is conducting.  But when it comes to the impact on civilians, the treatment of civilians, the things that we see – not just in social media but elsewhere in our conversations with people on the ground, in our assessments with things on the ground – we raise those issues with the Israelis, and we’ll continue to do so.  

QUESTION:  Can I just follow up —   

QUESTION:  — on sanctions? 

QUESTION:  You’ve sanctioned these four individuals.  The ideological leadership of these individuals and of all of those people to harness – basically who want the forcible expulsion of Palestinians sit at the highest levels of the Israeli Government: the finance minister, the national security minister.  There’s a fundamental contradiction, isn’t there, in your policy, because you’re sanctioning the followers, but you’re backing the leaders?

MR PATEL:  We don’t back any leader, or don’t back the leader of any government.  That’s not our approach to this.  This is an Israeli Government that we are working with.  And the makeup of any cabinet and any government is a sovereign decision for that government to do.  That’s not something that the United States has a say or a sway in.  And when we have seen rhetoric from some of these ministers, from some of these individuals that make up this cabinet, when we see rhetoric from any member of this particular Israeli cabinet that we think is not just a distraction but an incitement or something that brings us further away from a two-state solution or brings us further away from peace and stability in the region, we’ve not hesitated to say so.

QUESTION:  But it’s not – it’s not just rhetoric, because arms transfers go, for example, to the Israeli border police.  That is a department controlled by the national security minister.  Those border forces operate in East Jerusalem, in the West Bank often – rights groups will say – hand-in-glove with these people that are smashing up Palestinian property.  So there is an arms transfer to the very department, funded by the U.S. taxpayer, of one of these leaders in terms of the national security minister who controls the border police.  

MR PATEL:  And with every transfer of any U.S. asset, we, of course, have been clear that any end user needs to comply with humanitarian law, and those who are not should be held accountable.

QUESTION:  But are you checking that in each case? 

MR PATEL:  We are having —   

QUESTION:  You’re being —  

MR PATEL:  We – there are a number of vectors and lines of work that lead into the work we do to assess situations and circumstances on the ground to make sure that basic humanitarian rights are being protected and followed. 

QUESTION:  Thanks, Vedant.  Appreciate it. 

QUESTION:  I was just wondering, Secretary Blinken’s trip to the region comes on the heels of the French foreign – the new French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné.  I was wondering if there was any sort of coordination between the two countries? 

MR PATEL:  Well, look, the French, of course, have been incredible partners, not just as it relates to this conflict but much when it comes to the United States’s approach to a number of other areas.  I don’t have any specific engagements or meetings to read out, but throughout all of this you have seen the Secretary engage quite regularly and with partner countries, allies, as it relates to the broader situation.  And that’s something that we’re going to continue to do.  

QUESTION:  Thank you, Vedant.  Two questions. 

QUESTION:  North Korea launched cruise missiles four times this year at three days’ intervals.  Isn’t North Korea cruise missile launch a violation of the UN Security Council resolutions?  Is there any response from the U.S. itself?

MR PATEL:  These kinds of actions by the DPRK are deeply destabilizing, and they are unhelpful and they contribute to greater risk in – and risk in the region.  And so we’ll continue to coordinate closely trilaterally with the ROK and Japan when it comes to pushing back on some of these malign and destabilizing actions.  

QUESTION:  On Russia, the Russian ministry of foreign affairs defended North Korea and criticized the South Korea, saying the South Korean Government had biased reporting on North Korea’s nuclear preemptive strikes.  And Russia denied North Korea and Russians’ trade and warned South Korea about such report.  How can you comment on —

MR PATEL:  Well, Janne, I’m not aware of this specific report that you’re mentioning, but what we do know is that there is a deepening relationship between the DPRK and Russia.  We have seen that.  We’ve seen that over the past many months, including the transfer of munitions from the DPRK to Russia.  And we believe that these kinds of actions and activities are deeply concerning and destabilizing.  And we’ll continue to work in close coordination to fend off against those.

Jenny has had her hand up patiently, and then we’ll make sure to get to the room. 

QUESTION:  Thanks, Vedant.

MR PATEL:  Go ahead.  

QUESTION:  Prime Minister Netanyahu said earlier today that he will not end his offensive in Gaza until the leadership of Hamas is destroyed.  He said this could take months.  We’ve seen this timeline shift over and over and over again.  I just wonder what the U.S.’s comment is on the prospect of this taking many more months.

MR PATEL:  Our hope and one of the things that the Secretary is continuing to work towards and work on is ending this conflict as soon as we can.  There is a convergence amongst all of us in wanting to see that happen, including many and all in the Israeli system, and we’ll continue to work in close coordination with them to that goal. 

QUESTION:  So it would be acceptable to the U.S. if this continues for months longer?

MR PATEL:  I’m not going to prescribe – I’m not going to prescribe a timeline and I’m not saying that any prescription of a timeline would be acceptable to us or not.  What I am saying is that we’re going to continue to work with the Israelis to end this conflict as soon as possible, and over the course of its duration, continue to push for the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza, continue to work tirelessly so that the hostages can be released, and continuing to allow for conditions so that foreign nationals who may be interested in departing Gaza can doing – can do so while simultaneously working towards some kind of longer-term solution here that gets us out of a endless cycle of violence.  You’ve heard the Secretary talk about that before, and we continue to feel strongly that a two-state solution is that solution forward. 

QUESTION:  And you spoke a little earlier to the importance of Rafah.  Do you have any updates on the amount of aid getting in — 

QUESTION:  — the number of Americans who are leaving through that passage? 

MR PATEL:  I have a couple of things.  So first, since October 7th, the State Department has assisted nearly 600 individuals, including U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and their family members with entry to Egypt from Gaza at the Rafah border crossing.  We feel that the vast majority of U.S. citizens who are seeking our assistance have reached out to us already, yet – but we’ll continue to engage appropriately through consular channels to any American citizen who might be interested in departing. 

On some of the metrics on the humanitarian questions that you raised, on February 4th, 207 trucks with food, medicine, and other supplies entered the Gaza Strip through the Rafah and Kerem Shalom crossings.  As of February 4th, more than 10,500 trucks with humanitarian aid entered Gaza since October 21st.  Again, you’ve heard me say this before:  This, of course, is not nearly enough, but we’re continuing to work with regional actors, including the Government of Israel and the Government of Egypt, to do what we can to increase flow, and that’s one of the things I expect the Secretary will continue to press on in his travels.

QUESTION:  A couple of China-related questions. 

MR PATEL:  Can I see if anybody else has anything else in the region — 

QUESTION:  Yeah, absolutely. 

MR PATEL:  — before I come back to you? 

QUESTION:  Following Jenny’s?

MR PATEL:  Okay, go ahead.  Yeah.

QUESTION:  Following Jenny’s, you said that you’re helping – you believe all the American citizens have reached out already.  At one point the embassy and the Americans were helping non-U.S. citizen Gazans who worked for U.S. media or U.S. NGOs, et cetera, and you stopped that.  Is there a reason that you stopped that, and any chance of restarting it? 

MR PATEL:  Look, our priority in these circumstances, of course, are American citizens, legal permanent residents, and their eligible family members.  But I’m happy to look into if there’s anything around that circumstance that we can share.  Happy to follow back up with you. 

QUESTION:  Can I follow up on that? 

MR PATEL:  On the region? 

QUESTION:  Yes, on the region. 

MR PATEL:  Okay.  All right, hold on, everybody.  We’ll get to you.  

QUESTION:  Thank you, Vedant.  You just referenced the two-state solution.  The Secretary has been following that up during his trips.  The Islamic Republic of Iran says that they also want peace and security in the region.  They want a country for the Palestinians.  How do you see this claim by them?  Is there common ground here? 

MR PATEL:  If the Iranian regime is interested in peace and stability, they could stop being the world’s largest exporter of terrorism.  That would be a great starting point.  

QUESTION:  To follow up on that — 

QUESTION:  — what can you tell us about the impact of the weekend strikes, particularly about the – there’s a growing criticism that if the aim is to stop Iran, then why going after two other nations instead of Iran while simultaneously saying that you are not seeking to expand these tensions in the region? 

MR PATEL:  Alex, it is of course about holding these Iran-aligned malign proxy groups accountable.  And so what these strikes were on Friday, you saw the United States conduct strikes on more than 85 locations at 75 facilities in Iraq and Syria.  Three were in Iraq and four were in Syria, and these locations were used by the IRGC and affiliated militias to attack U.S. forces.  These locations were carefully selected, and there is clear and irrefutable evidence that the facilities targeted were used by groups and individuals directly involved in the attacks on the Americans.  They included command and control centers, rocket, missile, and drone storage facilities, and other things of that nature and which we have credible information to believe that they were directly involved in the attacks on American personnel. 

QUESTION:  Follow-up to — 

QUESTION:  Can you just come back to me on Russia later? 

QUESTION:  Related follow-on to that? 

MR PATEL:  Diyar, and then I’ll come to you, Guita.  Go ahead. 

QUESTION:  Thank you, Vedant.  On the same topic.

QUESTION:  The Iraqi Government says that we have been not informed by the U.S. Government, but after the attack I was attending the press call by John Kirby and he said we did inform the Iraqi Government.  So have you informed the Iraqi Government prior to the attacks? 

MR PATEL:  So Iraq, like every country in the region, understood that there would be a response after the deaths of our soldiers.  As for the specific response on Friday, there was not a pre-notification.  We informed the Iraqis immediately after the strikes occurred. 

QUESTION:  All right.  And one follow-up.  And how do you see the Iraqi reaction to that attack?  They summoned your chargé d’affaires, the U.S. embassy chargé d’affaires, and also they said this is an attack on the Iraqi Security Forces and on the civilian residential buildings and citizens.  Then how do you see that reaction? 

MR PATEL:  So let me say a couple of things.  First, our colleagues at the Pentagon are continuing to do their battle damage assessment.  But again, these targets were carefully selected, and as I said, they included command and control centers; rocket, missile, drone storage facilities.  We believe that these were credible targets and picked in a way to minimize and avoid civilian casualties.  I’ve seen some of those allegations; allegations of casualties among Iraqi Security Forces because of these strikes on these terrorist-operated facilities are concerning.  It would mean that these rogue Iran-aligned militia groups are working in proximity to official Iraqi Security Forces.  But again, these battle damage assessments are still ongoing and I don’t have anything conclusive to offer from up here, and I’m sure my colleagues at the Pentagon would be able to speak more to that. 

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Reportedly there’s – there has been another drone attack on a U.S. base in Syria today.  There have been no U.S. casualties reported yet, but six or seven Kurdish fighters have been reportedly killed.  Now, the retaliation against the Islamic Republic of Iran is in relation to killing of American troops.  What about allies?  Would the administration take any action when it comes to killing of allies? 

MR PATEL:  I’m certainly not going to preview any actions from up here.  But look, we believe that all of these kinds of activities are dangerous, they’re reckless, they’re incredibly destabilizing, and they are unsafe.  And so we’ll take appropriate steps to hold those accountable.  I don’t have any assessment to offer on this specific circumstance, but I think you heard National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan pretty clearly this weekend talk about how these initial strikes were – would be just the start.  So – but again, I’m not going to preview anything from here.  

MR PATEL:  I’m going to work the room a little bit, Guita, because a lot of people have their hands up.  Michel, go ahead. 

QUESTION:  Yeah, on Iraq, do you have any comments on the assassination of Naji al-Kaabi, one of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq leader, in Iraq?  And reports say that the U.S. was involved in this assassination.  Can you confirm that? 

MR PATEL:  I don’t have anything to offer on that.  I’m happy to look at that.  I don’t believe it to be true, Michel, but I will double-check. 

QUESTION:  And do you have any reaction to the drone attack on a base housing U.S. troops in eastern Syria that killed six SDF fighters?  And do you consider this attack an attack on the U.S.? 

MR PATEL:  I think Guita just asked that question right before. 

QUESTION:  But do you consider it as an attack on the U.S., or you’re not —

MR PATEL:  Michel, again, these kinds of actions are incredibly destabilizing, they are unsafe, they are – increase risk and they put civilians, servicemembers, including servicemembers of other partner forces, in harm’s way.  And so we will take appropriate action, but I don’t have anything to preview from up here. 

QUESTION:  And what about the timing of this attack? 

MR PATEL:  I don’t – I’m not going to speculate on the timing. 

I’m going to go back to Nick, who’s patiently been waiting. 

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Thanks very much.  

QUESTION:  A couple of China questions.  A report last night bringing some renewed attention to the fact that Chinese nationals are the largest-growing ethnic group trying to illegally cross the southern border.  A major driver of that is because of the scaleback of visas issued to Chinese nationals.  What can you say about bilateral discussions and increasing those visa numbers? 

And then separately, there are reports that students, Chinese students with legal visas, have been getting harassed and interrogated at airports coming back from the holidays, and some not being admitted.  And the PRC ambassador called it absolutely unacceptable.  Have you had any discussions with PRC counterparts about this or any comment? 

MR PATEL:  Let me say a couple things.  I think, Nick, for – on both of those questions, I think the operational and technical details of that would be better answered by our colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security.  

On the People’s Republic of China broadly, look, people-to-people ties continues to be a topic of discussion in our continued bilateral engagements, and candidly, it’s an area where we believe there is opportunity for shared cooperation.  I believe the number – and someone will have to fact-check me on this – we have about 300,000 Chinese students studying in the United States.  And so there is of course opportunity for greater collaboration and cooperation in these spaces. 

As it relates to visas, our visa process is quite rigorous and quite solid, and of course we’re not going to – it is done so – without speaking to anybody’s specific visa circumstance, the process is adjudicated in the utmost strict, rigorous, and legal manner, and so don’t really have anything else to offer on that. 

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Two questions, India-related.

QUESTION:  One, Assistant Secretaries of State for South and Central Asia Donald Lu was in India and Maldives last week.  I wanted to check with you – do you have a readout of his trip to Maldives?  And what is the U.S. assessment of the situation in Maldives right now?

MR PATEL:  I don’t have any readout from here but let me check with the team and see if we can get back to you on that.

QUESTION:  And second question:  A day after the State Department notified the Congress about a decision to sell MQ-9B drones to India, Senator Ben Cardin, chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement saying that he had long negotiations with the State Department on that issue.  Can you give us a sense what his main concerns were, and have all these concerns been addressed?

MR PATEL:  I’m not going to characterize Senator Cardin’s comments.  I would refer you to our colleagues at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to speak to that.  But what I can say is that this sale, we believe, will provide India with an enhanced maritime security and maritime domain awareness capability.  It offers India outright ownership of these aircraft, and this is something that we’ll continue to deepen our cooperation with our Indian partners on.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Thank you.

QUESTION:  Just a few days, sir, remain in the Pakistani elections.  There is a question mark on the fairness of the electoral process as former prime minister and a popular leader Imran Khan behind bars, not even allowed to contest elections.  His political party symbol, a cricket bat, is also banned.  United States always stood up for the democratic values and freedom of speech.  What is your take on the scenario?

MR PATEL:  We’re continuing to monitor Pakistan’s electoral process quite closely, and as we have said, we want to see that process take place in a way that facilitates broad participation with respect for freedom of expression, assembly, and associations.  We have concerns of the – all incidents of violence and restrictions on media freedom; freedom of expression, including internet freedom; and peaceful and – peaceful assembly and association.  We’re concerned by some of the infringements that we’ve seen in that space.  Pakistanis deserve to exercise their fundamental right to choose their future leaders through free and fair elections without fear, violence, or intimidation, and it is ultimately for the people of Pakistan to decide their political future.

Go ahead.  Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION:  The UN secretary-general is convening a conference this month to discuss about international and regional approach to Afghanistan.

QUESTION:  Meanwhile Taliban have refused to work with the new UN envoy in Afghanistan.  Do you support this initiative?  And what the U.S. is doing to support the role of the new UN envoy for Afghanistan?

MR PATEL:  Look, we believe it is important to be very clear about our State Department position is that we have no near-term plans to return any diplomatic functions to Kabul.  We engage with many Afghans, including the Taliban, both inside and outside the country, but human rights and the return to school for women and girls are at the forefront of our engagement.  And working with our allies and partners – which, of course, the UN is a key partner – we’ll continue to press the Taliban to reverse these discriminatory edicts, particularly those that disproportionately affect women and girls and those that we believe will affect any normalization of relations.  And it’s contingent on the respect for the rights of all Afghans.

Go ahead, in the back.  Yeah.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  On Russia, last week Russia presented evidence that Ukraine used a Patriot missile system to shoot down a Russian plane with 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war on board.  Are you aware of this?  Are you going to look into this incident and ask questions – Ukrainian partners?

MR PATEL:  Is it the same level of credible evidence that makes Russia claim that they have Crimea or that all the territory that they took from Ukraine is theirs?

QUESTION:  So you don’t believe Russian claims that —

MR PATEL:  No, I’m just following up with a question, is if it’s the same level of credible evidence that the Russians have showed when it comes to their track record on telling the truth about other things.

QUESTION:  Russia published pictures of the Patriot missile system.

MR PATEL:  As it relates to the specific incident that you’re referring to, I will let our partners in Ukraine speak to that.  But when it comes to credible information coming from Russia, they don’t really have a lot of legs to stand on given their immense track record of disinformation, not just in the region but also broadly.

QUESTION:  One more question.

MR PATEL:  Go ahead, yeah.

QUESTION:  So the United Nations secretary-general today condemned another Ukrainian attack that killed 28 people the other day, including one child.  An American-made HIMARS rocket was used for this attack.  Are you aware of this?  Are you planning to condemn it or anything else?

MR PATEL:  I’ve seen those reports.  But again, given the track record that Russia has, we have no way of independently verifying that information, so – go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thank you, sir.

QUESTION:  Every day, the United States emphasized the necessity of protecting civilians in Gaza and ensuring they receive their necessity stuff.  However, the commitment does not seem to translate in action, especially after United States suspended funding UNRWA based on suspicions only.  This situation raised questions —

MR PATEL:  It wasn’t based on suspicions.  I just want to be very clear.  There were credible allegations, so – I don’t mean to interrupt you, but I think – I take issue with the premise of your question.

QUESTION:  Even few member —

MR PATEL:  It doesn’t – as I said to Said, it doesn’t matter if it’s two or 12.  We think any participation in terrorism is incredibly troubling and problematic.  It needs to be held accountable, and that’s why we were glad to see UNRWA take these steps to internally investigate into what happened.

QUESTION:  Isn’t United States truly – and I couldn’t imagine incapable to provide people with their necessary stuff, their essential needs, and to protect them.  Every day until now civilian bomb, the majority of them children; yesterday, today, before.  And also I have friends and cousins in Gaza; they don’t have – there is huge shortage.  They don’t have their essential needs.  I can’t imagine that United States incapable to do that —

QUESTION:  — if it seriously or sincerely wants to help civilian people in Gaza.  

MR PATEL:  — since October 7th, we have been unambiguous about the importance of getting increased, regular flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.  And candidly, it is because of American diplomacy that we have been able to see aid trucks flow into Gaza helping the Palestinian people.  And as I was telling Jenny, on February 4th, 207 trucks with food, medicine, and other supplies entered Gaza.  We are looking at a total of 10,500 trucks since October 21st.  I’m not at all saying that this is enough, by any means.  We need more and we will always continue to push for more.  But this is at the forefront of the Secretary’s mind, it’s at the forefront of our mind, and we continue to believe that UNRWA does vital, integral, and important work in the region.  And that is why we’re going to continue to engage closely with donor countries, but also we look forward to seeing UNRWA work through its – this investigation, through the UN as well.

QUESTION:  Look, my second question is:  What human rights violation will Israel commit before America stop funding the IDF?  Everything is targeting in Gaza, even the dead people.

MR PATEL:  I spoke a little bit to this when answering Jenny’s question.  We believe that every possible step needs to be taken to minimize civilian casualties.  That’s something we’ll continue to press the Israeli Government, and we continue to believe that when international humanitarian law isn’t complied with that there needs to be accountability.

QUESTION:  Thanks, Vedant.  What’s your reaction to Speaker Johnson and House GOP leadership saying the supplemental is dead on arrival in the House?  What message does it send to the rest of the world?

And Buckingham Palace just announced that King Charles has been diagnosed with cancer.  Any reaction to this news surrounding his majesty?

MR PATEL:  I just – I didn’t see that report before coming out.  So certainly first and foremost, our thoughts are with the king.  That’s really – with the king and his family.  That’s incredibly sad news, and hope that – actually, that’s just – that’s very sad, and I’m very sorry for the king and his family.

On your first question, I think to quote Secretary Blinken, there is no magic pot of money.  There is no alternative path here.  This funding is critical not just – it’s funding for a number of areas.  It’s – it’s critical for continuing to support Ukraine as it fights for its sovereignty and territorial integrity against Russia.  It is critical to our partners in Israel as they continue to work to hold the Hamas terrorists accountable for these October 7th terrorist attacks.  And as I said a little bit at the beginning, it is critical to humanitarian aid that we believe is needed in all corners of the world, including those impacted by the war in Ukraine as well as the conflict that’s ongoing in Gaza as well.

So we’ll continue to work with our partners in Congress.  We believe that it’s necessary.  And as the Secretary said, there is no – there is no magic pot of money.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Vedant.  Two quick question, if I may.

QUESTION:  May I know the – may I know the status of implementing visa restrictions under 3C visa policy for those who undermining elections, given the concern that the recent election in Bangladesh did not reflect the will of the people of Bangladesh?

MR PATEL:  So I don’t have any updates or changes to offer when it comes to policy.  My understanding is that these policies don’t sunset just because the election is over, but I don’t have any updates to offer.

QUESTION:  Still that policies exist?

MR PATEL:  That is – yes.  There is no change in policy.

QUESTION:  Yeah.  One more on the ruling regime in Bangladesh has filed a fresh corruption charge against Nobel laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus.  The government is restricting his ability to travel abroad through another court order.  A coalition of 243 global leaders, including 125 Nobel laureates, expresses concern over the judicial harassment of Professor Muhammad Yunus; 12 bipartisan U.S. senators, led by Senator Dick Durbin, call for an halt to all harassment.  How does the State Department view the prime minister political vendetta against Professor Muhammad Yunus?

MR PATEL:  Look, we share concerns voiced by other international observers that these cases may represent a misuse of Bangladesh’s labor laws to – as a way to intimidate Doctor Yunus.  And our hope is that we would encourage the Bangladeshi Government to ensure a fair and transparent legal process for Doctor Yunus as the appeals process continues.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Vedant.  Do you have anything on this debate in Hungarian parliament about Sweden’s NATO bid?  Orban’s MPs didn’t show up.  What do you think why Orban is doing what he is doing?

MR PATEL:  Hungary is the last NATO Ally to ratify NATO’s membership, and we are glad that Hungary’s parliament held that session today.  At the same time, we are disappointed that the ruling party blocked the opportunity for a vote by boycotting the session.  Hungary has said that it supports Sweden’s NATO accession, and it has also said that Sweden has fulfilled its commitments and is ready to become a NATO Ally.  We believe the matter of Sweden’s NATO accession has been settled, and our hope is that we can work through this final process expeditiously.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  And going back to Russia, if I may — 

QUESTION:  Putin is expected to visit NATO member Türkiye next week, and according to Turkish officials President Erdogan is planning to focus on a new way, quote/unquote, to allow Ukrainian grain exports through the Black Sea.  What is the department’s view on the trip and the topic?

MR PATEL:  So first, I will leave it to our Turkish partners to speak to their own engagements and their own foreign policy.  If any country is able to play a meaningful role in stopping Russia from some of its malign behavior, we certainly would welcome it.  

And then the topic of Ukrainian grain, Alex – you know, as someone who has followed this the whole time, that Türkiye was instrumental in the – in getting the Black Sea Grain Initiative accomplished when it was in existence, and so we continue to feel that it’s critical that Ukrainian grain get to the places that it needs to go.  And if there is credible progress that can be made in that space, it certainly would be a welcome one.

Ryan, you had your hand up.  

QUESTION:  One more question on — 

MR PATEL:  I’m going to work the room, Alex.  You’ve gotten a couple questions already.  

QUESTION:  Quick question on sanctions.  When you guys implemented sanctions on Yemen, you announced kind of extraordinary carveouts to make sure that you didn’t exacerbate the humanitarian crisis there.  When you warned that Venezuela may soon be getting hit with sanctions on its oil industry, there was no kind of – there was no application of those same carveouts.  That includes the recent sanctions that were applied to Venezuela.

So if the goal is to make sure the humanitarian situation doesn’t deteriorate in any country, why not make the carveouts from Yemen kind of universal to sanctions applications?

MR PATEL:  So I’d have to check the technical specifics, Ryan.  But just broadly speaking, when it come to our approach to sanctions, export controls, things like that, we have been very clear to try and leave carveouts so that humanitarian aid, lifesaving aid, is not impeded.  That’s just not the case in Yemen – it’s also the case in Russia, other places as well.  But I am happy to check into the technical specifics of this circumstance and see what we might have to offer on this?

Jalil, and then let’s close it out.  Or – then we’ll come back to Simon, then we’ll wrap.  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much, Vedant.

MR PATEL:  A quick one, my friend.

QUESTION:  A little different interesting question for you.  Today – today AFP reported that ElevenLab created this voiceover of President Biden, and today Wall Street has reported that a Twitter big financer is a LSD and some other drugs user.  So as big social media platforms are playing a big role in the electioneering in the U.S. and internationally, how difficult is it making your job, this whole social media influencing and the money that is spent there behind promoting and downplaying leaders?  And the same thing just happened with President Biden just recently, so how is the State Department handling this whole issue?

MR PATEL:  So as it relates to your second question, I really don’t have any comment for you.  But look, when it comes to social media, especially the dis- and misinformation that can exist on social media in foreign countries, that of course is something of grave concern to us.  And that is exactly why we have the Global Engagement Center.  It’s something Special Envoy Rubin is immensely focused on.  Under Secretary Liz Allen is working immensely on this as well.  And we have a number of lines of efforts across the department, including through the Secretary, in which we’re working to combat mis- and disinformation in places around the world.

QUESTION:  Just one follow-up, please.  

QUESTION:  Recently, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had an interview with French TV and he made this two comments.  I see that the U.S. and Israel of course are very close partners.  He made these two comments.  One was that this is a battle of civilization.  Doesn’t this sound very extremist from a leader like — 

MR PATEL:  I’ve not seen the prime minister’s interview, and I will leave it to his office to clarify his comments.

QUESTION:  Yeah, I want to ask about events in Senegal.

QUESTION:  Do you have any response to the events that happened over the weekend there?  And I wonder, and more broadly, the Secretary just came back from a trip to that region.  I know the U.S. has been pretty concerned about the sort of spate of both coups and undemocratic things.  Do you classify this as a coup, as I think some people have?  And how does this speak to your broader strategy for that region when countries kind of keep going down this path?

MR PATEL:  Sure.  So first, we are deeply concerned about the situation in Senegal and are closely monitoring developments.  Senegal has a strong tradition of democracy and peaceful transitions of power.  And while we acknowledge allegations of irregularities, we are concerned about the disruption of the presidential election calendar, and we urge all participants in Senegal’s political process to engage in – peacefully, to engage peacefully in the important effort to hold free, fair, and timely elections.  We also call on Senegalese authorities to restore internet access immediately and to respect freedom of expression, including for members of the press.  

I will also just add, since you asked, Simon, in terms of how the U.S. supports the Senegalese people’s commitment to democracy in a number of ways, we’ve got lines of effort through technical and financial support as well as working directly with election authorities and civil society.  

QUESTION:  And too early to say whether – whether it’s a coup or not?  

MR PATEL:  I don’t have any assessment to offer for you on that.

QUESTION:  (Off-mike.) 

MR PATEL:  All right, thanks, everybody.  Thanks, everybody.  

QUESTION:  Thank you.  

(The briefing was concluded at 1:44 p.m.)

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