Department Press Briefing – February 8, 2024 – United States Department of State


MR PATEL: Good afternoon, everybody. Apologies for being a little tardy. I do not have anything off the top. So Simon, since you’re in that chair, I’m going to ask if you’d like to kick us off.

QUESTION: That is quite intimidating.

QUESTION: It’s quite intimidating to be in —

MR PATEL: I don’t think so, no. (Laughter.)

MR PATEL: I don’t have any other updates, Simon, than what you said. As you know, we have no higher priority than the safety and security of American citizens overseas. We are aware of these reports, and we are currently seeking additional information, but I don’t have any additional information to share and would not be able to at this point, given the privacy considerations.

QUESTION: I just wondered – the Israeli Defense Forces did say today that they have been operating in Khan Younis and have apprehended dozens of suspected militants. If – have there been any cases where American citizens have been accused by the Israelis of being militants involved with Hamas in Gaza?

MR PATEL: I’m not aware and I just wouldn’t want to speculate on such a hypothetical situation. As it relates to the questions that you asked, we are seeking out additional information. Broadly, as it relates to American citizens in Gaza, we continue to be communicative to them through online and through our consular channels for avenues and options for safe departure, specifically through the Rafah crossing, and we’ll continue to have those resources available.

QUESTION: And I believe the same family involved in a lawsuit against the State Department about – regarding this very issue of whether you’ve done enough to help Palestinian Americans who want to evacuate from Gaza, is your understanding that there are still Americans in Gaza who would like to leave who haven’t been able to? And what has stopped you from being able to get them out?

MR PATEL: So let me say a couple things. First, I am just not going to comment on any kind of litigation matter. But since October 7th, we have assisted nearly 1,600 individuals, including U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and other eligible family members with entry into Egypt from Gaza at the – from the Rafah border crossing. We will continue to be in close touch and make ourself available to U.S. citizens seeking to depart. We believe that the vast majority of U.S. citizens so far who are seeking assistance have reached out. And our expectation continues to be that we expect the number of American citizens, LPRs, and eligible family members who are able to depart – we expect that number to continue to grow, as long as the crossing remains open.

Again – you’ve heard me say this before – this is not a crossing that the United States of America has any control over. It’s not one of our ports of entry. But we’ll continue to work closely with the Egyptians, the Israelis, and others on the safe departure of foreign nationals.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on this, please?

MR PATEL: On the region broadly or on the consular question?

QUESTION: On this, on this issue.

MR PATEL: All right. Go ahead. Then I’ll come to you, Jenny.

QUESTION: Thanks. There’s also a young Palestinian American woman in the West Bank that was arrested by the Israelis. How do you – what mechanism do you use to follow up on these things? Do you do it through the embassy, or you go directly to the – how do you do it? What is the mechanism?

MR PATEL: Well, Said, there are appropriate channels that exist in the respective governments’ foreign ministries to talk about consular issues. I’m not going to get into the specifics of those, but those channels exist. And specifically on the issue that you’ve raised, we are also trying to continue to get more information as we can. We are aware that a U.S. citizen from the West Bank is detained in Israel, and we are in direct contact with the family and Israeli authorities and providing all appropriate consular assistance.

QUESTION: So it is something that is done through the American security coordinator, a military general who’s in the West Bank? Is that how it’s done? I mean, for instance, there was a young man that was shot a couple weeks ago. We don’t know what happened. It seems like you go into some sort of a never neverland. What happened afterward?

QUESTION: How are you following up with that particular case?

QUESTION: Which we raised here.

MR PATEL: On that specific case, as you heard me say, the investigation into that matter was referred to the INP, and that process continues to be underway. And we hope and expect that that investigation to be conducted expeditiously, and we’re eager to hear and learn of the findings of that circumstance.

Broadly though, Said – I’m not going to speak specifically about one country – when it has made – it has been made to our attention that an American citizen is detained, we work through the appropriate consular channels that exists in the consular conventions that we have with that country to assess information, ask for consular access to that individual, and that continues to be in the case here.

QUESTION: Yeah. I have a couple of follow-ups on Secretary statements.

MR PATEL: Okay. I’m going – is it okay if I come back to you? Because Jenny had her hand up and —

QUESTION: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I’ve been —

MR PATEL: We’ll – don’t worry, Said. No doubt we’ll get to you.

QUESTION: I understand you’ll come back to me.

QUESTION: Can I get a quick follow-up on Said’s question, though? When do you expect the INP investigation into this person’s case to be wrapped up?

MR PATEL: I don’t have a sense on a timeline.

QUESTION: Have you given them any timeline, that you need answers by X date?

MR PATEL: I’m going to keep those diplomatic conversations private. We – of course, our hope is to have answers and clarity as soon as possible. And like I said, we want this to happen expeditiously, but I don’t have a timeline to prescribe or offer.

QUESTION: Got it. And our understanding is the Secretary was briefed on the Israeli forces’ plans for Rafah. What can you tell us about their intended military operation there? Are you confident that they are going to be able to take steps to protect more than the one million people who have now had to flee to Rafah for safety?

MR PATEL: So specifically on Rafah and on the Secretary’s meetings broadly, I’m not going to get more descriptive than how you heard the Secretary himself describe his engagements with Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, over this past week.

But on Rafah, we have seen those reports. We have yet to see any evidence of serious planning for such an operation. And to do – conduct such an operation right now with no planning and little thought in an area where there is sheltering of a million people would be a disaster. And you’ll note that I spoke a little bit about this on Monday: Rafah is also a region that is a key conduit for access of humanitarian aid. The Rafah border crossing is where foreign nationals, including American citizens and LPRs, are able to safely depart.

So this is not something that we’d support, and the Secretary made that clear in his meetings with —

QUESTION: You would not support a military operation in Rafah? Is that what you’re saying?

MR PATEL: And the Secretary made that clear with the prime minister.

QUESTION: Just so I’m understanding your message correctly, the U.S. does not support a military operation in Rafah?

MR PATEL: We would not support the undertaking of something like this without serious and credible planning as it relates to the more than a million people who are sheltering there, as well as without considering the impacts on humanitarian assistance and the safe departure of foreign nationals as well.

QUESTION: And so you say there are – you have not heard any plans for a military operation. Is that what Halevi and other Israeli officials —

MR PATEL: I’m just – I’m not going to —

QUESTION: — relayed to the Secretary yesterday, or is this just based on the public – what – what is being said.

MR PATEL: I am not going to get more specific on the Secretary’s engagements, beyond what you’ve heard him read out in his own press conference yesterday.

QUESTION: And then he also mentioned in this press conference the need for Erez to be open for humanitarian goods. Is that something the Israelis have indicated they are open to, and when might we see that opening?

MR PATEL: I’ll let the Israelis, of course, speak to their own planning and operations. But you’re absolutely right; he did raise that in his press conference, and we think that it could be an important and vital step for continuing to increase the humanitarian aid that flows into Gaza.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up specifically on Rafah?

QUESTION: I mean, you’ve talked about without a serious undertaking of how it relates to more than a million people there. Presumably, if they want to carry out a military operation there, that means those people have to be evacuated and moved, but where are they supposed to go? There is nowhere left to go, and they’re not allowing them back to the north. Khan Younis is another center of military action. So just if you could flesh out what that means.

MR PATEL: These are legitimate questions that we believe that the Israelis should answer. I mean, it’s not for us to be prescriptive about these things. But what you so exactly raised is why it is important to be – make sure that these kinds of operations are fully thought out, especially in an area that, like I said, there are more than a million people sheltering, continues to be an important conduit for humanitarian aid, as I’ve said, as well as the safe departure of foreign nationals.

QUESTION: Sorry, let me just – on the same topic.

QUESTION: It’s 1.4 million. That’s the estimates. It’s a lot of people. And it doesn’t seem to have much military value, so – and I know the Secretary said that October 7th should not – should not be a license to Israel to dehumanize others. I assume he’s talking about this looming catastrophe. So why can’t the administration just issue a very firm statement on Rafah? Because obviously, until most recently, it had no military value, none whatsoever.

MR PATEL: Said, it’s really not —

QUESTION: That’s what the Israelis kept saying.

MR PATEL: It’s really not for me to stand up here and speak to what has military or strategic value or not. What I can just say and reiterate what I just said is that such an operation needs to be conducted with planning and factoring and taking the things into consideration that I laid out, specifically the more than a million people sheltering, the impacts on humanitarian assistance. And we have not seen such kind of planning take place yet, and therefore, as I said, the Secretary made clear that this is not something that we would support.

QUESTION: The Secretary also —

QUESTION: There’s been just so —

QUESTION: Just to follow up —

QUESTION: The Secretary also said something akin that we want an irreversible path to Palestinian statehood. What does that mean?

MR PATEL: Said, you have heard —

QUESTION: What does that mean? I mean, can you explain to us in whatever the understanding of this building, what does it mean?

MR PATEL: Said, you have heard the Secretary talk about this quite clearly since October 7th and even before. We believe that there is an avenue and an opportunity here to get us out of this endless cycle of violence, to work towards and make credible progress towards a two-state solution, a Palestinian state. And we believe that that is a key factor in how we look at regional stability and security for the overall region and to get us out of this endless cycle of violence.

We are not – I am not – no one here is being prescriptive about what exactly that policy is. As the Secretary said in Tel Aviv, part of this diplomatic process is engaging in a variety of these ideas and engaging in a lot of these policy proposals.

QUESTION: So is it conceivable to go to the UN Security Council and say – talk – or maybe recognize a Palestinian state although it may not be implemented, let’s say, in the immediate future? Is it conceivable that the United States would not veto it if such a resolution is proposed?

MR PATEL: Said, I’m not going to entertain or get into hypotheticals. You’ve heard us say before that a Palestinian state should be realized through direct negotiations. That’s not a position that has changed. But what the Secretary said was that there are a number of policy options that people may propose as part of that process, and our focus continues to be on the diplomacy needed to bring all of this about – getting ideas, getting proposals from concerned and appropriate regional parties, and putting together a credible and clear plan. That’s part of what the Secretary is doing on his travels to the region.

QUESTION: Is it fair to assume —

MR PATEL: Go ahead, Rosiland.

QUESTION: — that if the Israelis describe to the U.S. why they needed to go into Rafah, what they would be doing in Rafah, what the targets would be, would the U.S. be in support of such a mission? And – echoing what my colleagues have already raised – where would people go? Egypt has already indicated it does not want people coming into the Sinai. It does not want a refugee problem in the Sinai. So two parts.

MR PATEL: Rosiland, I’m just not going to get ahead of a hypothetical or a process here. I’ve seen these reports about a military operation into Rafah. As I said in answering Jenny’s question, we have not seen evidence of serious planning for such an operation. And to do any kind of – such thing right now with no planning and little thought in an area where more than a million people are sheltering, an area that is a key conduit for humanitarian aid entering Gaza, a key conduit for the safe departure of foreign nationals, that would be a disaster. It’s not something that we would support, and the Secretary made that clear to the prime minister.

MR PATEL: Leon, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, I was wondering, because from this podium you’ve always been very clear that you are not involved in operational planning —

MR PATEL: We are not. We are not.

QUESTION: Yeah, of course. Yes.

MR PATEL: That is – that is absolutely correct.

QUESTION: And they didn’t – they didn’t give you a heads-up with Gaza. They’ve never given you a heads-up really on the operational planning, and you’ve always been very clear that you are not – obviously not involved and not – so now you’re saying you want to see those plans before they do what they do in Rafah?

MR PATEL: That’s not what I’m saying, Leon. What I am saying is that we have not seen evidence of serious planning around this operation. And of course —

QUESTION: Well, what kind of evidence are you waiting for —

MR PATEL: — when it comes to —

QUESTION: — are you expecting?

MR PATEL: We’ve just spent the past, I don’t know, 15 minutes talking about how there are a million people sheltering in this region, how it’s a region that is a key conduit for humanitarian aid and the safe departure for foreign nationals. I’m answering yours and your colleagues’ questions about what our viewpoint would be on this. And so we’ve been pretty clear that we’ve not seen any evidence of any serious planning around this, that we’ve seen these reports and we’ve also reiterated what the Secretary laid out when it came to his concerns, which you saw him address in Tel Aviv as well.

QUESTION: Just quick on the evidence thing, though. So did the IDF and everyone Blinken met with yesterday say we are not going into Rafah?

MR PATEL: I am not going to speak to the specifics of the meetings and engagements that the Secretary has had beyond what we have already wrote out. And he gave a pretty lengthy press conference that your colleagues on the road attended and asked questions in which —

QUESTION: Yeah, we all watched the press conference, but we’re trying to figure out —

MR PATEL: — he spoke to this pretty clearly.

QUESTION: — how you are saying there is no evidence you have seen if he had an entire briefing yesterday with top Israeli officials. Did – yes or no, did they tell him we are not going into Rafah?

MR PATEL: I am just not going to get into the specifics of the engagement that he had on the road.

QUESTION: Yeah, Vedant —

QUESTION: — the Israeli prime minister said yesterday that he directed the army to prepare for an operation in Rafah.

MR PATEL: Again, when I’m saying that we’ve not seen these reports, Michel, what I am speaking about is that – reports around the serious planning for such an operation. And we believe that planning for such an operation should require and – some thought into the more than a million people who are sheltering in the area. It’s also an area that is a key conduit for humanitarian aid and the safe departure of foreign nationals. Conducting an operation without thinking these pieces through is not something we’d support, and the Secretary made that clear to the prime minister.

QUESTION: And what’s your assessment or the department’s assessment for the Secretary’s trip? Was he able to achieve the goals that he set before he went?

MR PATEL: Michel, in all of our travels to the region, we go with some broad goals in mind and broad goals that we hope to continue to push forward: one of those, of course, continues to be doing everything we can to ensure that hostages can come home and that the hostages that are being held and continue to be unaccounted for can be released and come home.

Additionally, we continue to do everything we can to try and push for additional humanitarian assistance to flow into Gaza. That continues to be something the Secretary raised. You saw him talk about how important we feel that Erez be opened for humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza. And additionally we’ll continue to coordinate appropriately with regional parties on two fronts: first, taking every step we can to ensure that this conflict does not expand, does not grow and wade into other parts of the region; and additionally, of course, as Said was talking about, beginning to lay the groundwork and have conversations about a solution here that gets us out of the endless cycle of violence and closer to a two-state solution, which we believe is integral for peace and stability in the region.

QUESTION: Any progress that has been made on any of these points that you – that you already (inaudible)?

MR PATEL: You saw the Secretary lay out a number of these things in his press conference yesterday as it relates to how we are talking to our partners in Israel and other regional interlocutors about humanitarian aid and some of these other issues, and we’ll continue to work at them.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up on this. You’ve sort of given this warning of it would be a disaster to go into Rafah with no planning. Does the U.S. – the U.S. is the main supporter of Israel in terms of military aid and weapons. Would you do anything if they go ahead and do something that you just said would be a disaster?

MR PATEL: I’m not going to speculate or hypothesize on something, Simon.

QUESTION: And just – just – so more than two months ago, on the same theme, but more than two months ago the administration sort of said – started saying that there have been too many deaths in this conflict. That was when about 15,000 Palestinians had died. And there was a warning that Israel faces strategic defeat if they continue down a path of conflict, which is – which was creating so many civilian deaths and kind of – they were basically losing the longer-term fight through these – this tactic. Now, like, more than two months later, that number of deaths has almost doubled. We’re – I think we’re around 29,000 now. Can you just continue to give these rhetorical warnings without any actual consequences for Israel, or aren’t they just going to continue doing the same thing?

MR PATEL: We continue to believe that the daily toll of this military operation is too high, especially the toll that it is taking on innocent civilians, specifically women and children. And so what we are doing is we’re having very specific conversations with Israel about steps that can be taken that we believe would help alleviate some of that. You saw the Secretary talk about some of those things yesterday – first, of course, opening Erez so that the assistance can flow into northern Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of people are struggling to survive under dire conditions. We also believe that steps could and should be taken to expedite the flow of humanitarian assistance from Jordan. There are steps that can be taken to strengthen deconfliction and improve coordination with humanitarian providers. And we also believe that Israel should take any step possible to ensure that the delivery of lifesaving assistance to Gaza is not blocked for any reason by anyone.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on —

MR PATEL: I’ll come back to you. Alex, go ahead.

QUESTION: Just on the same region.

MR PATEL: Both things can be true, Alex. Of course, my colleagues at the Pentagon, I’m sure, would be happy to talk to you in greater detail about some of the contours of the military operation, but the focus continues to be both: to deter these Iran-backed malign proxy groups from taking dangerous action against our servicemembers while also degrading their capability and their ability to do so down the line. And so both can certainly be true.

QUESTION: Can you please come back to me?

MR PATEL: Yeah, sure. Go ahead.

MR PATEL: I’ll come back to you, I promise. (Inaudible.)

MR PATEL: So I don’t have anything to offer to further characterize the Secretary’s meetings in Israel beyond what you heard him say. What I can just say broadly is that we believe that the civilian death toll in Gaza has been far too high, and the impact that this military operation has had on civilians is far too high, and there continue to be steps, we believe, that can be taken that we believe are a moral and strategic imperative to minimize the impact on civilians. And that’s something we’ll continue to work towards.

QUESTION: So you have been urging Israel to take some steps to minimize civilian harm – and you have been urging them for maybe past four months. And have you determined that Israel has taken any of these steps? And if you determine that Israel is not taking those steps, what will be the consequences?

MR PATEL: Look, I am not going to Monday morning quarterback this – the operation from here or specific incidents that are reported in the media. We believe that there are more steps that can be taken. We also believe that over the course of this conflict, when we have raised the need to take certain steps that we believe will have a positive impact on civilians, our partners in Israel have done so. And so we’ll continue having these very tough and frank conversations.

I’m going to do Guita because she had her hand up, then I’ll come to you, Rosiland. Guita, go ahead.

MR PATEL: I’m just not going to speak to the operational specifics around this operation. What I can say is that the individual killed was a commander of KH, which as you know, is an Iran-aligned militia group and a designated terrorist organization. This commander was directly responsible for planning and participating in attacks on U.S. forces in the region, and we have said that attacks against U.S. and coalition forces by groups who call themselves the Islamic Resistance in Iraq need to stop.

And so if we continue to see threats and attacks from these militia groups, we will respond. We’ll take appropriate steps to hold them accountable.

QUESTION: You just said that the goal is to degrade their capabilities. But they could easily replenish with Iran’s help.

MR PATEL: Again, I’m – the specifics around the operation, I’m happy – I’m sure my colleagues at the Department of Defense would be happy to speak to you about this. But as I said to Alex, our goals can continue to be dual fronted on this.

QUESTION: — on this. Politico is reporting that the U.S. intelligence agencies have started – after the October 7th, they started warning about possible attacks on U.S. interests in the Middle East, military and diplomatic facilities. Are you confident that all diplomatic facilities are secure in the region? Because there’s very – when they get to Tower 22, they could easily do, I mean, Baghdad.

MR PATEL: So the safety and security of our facilities, our embassies, our consulates, as well as our American personnel operating there is of the highest priority for the Secretary and for this department. I am just not going to speak to threat assessments or security assessments from here, but it is something that is of the highest priority for the Secretary. And we will take appropriate precautions and steps as the risk circumstances and the threat tolerance changes.

QUESTION: Did you change anything in the U.S. embassy (inaudible) —

MR PATEL: No updates to offer. Rosiland, go ahead.

QUESTION: Let me just ask this very plainly. The U.S., Qatar, Egypt, other interlocutors worked out some kind of deal to try to bring this war to an end. Hamas came back with its concerns. Netanyahu yesterday said: absolutely no way, no how. Where is the space to try to negotiate an end to this war?

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that we have seen this work earlier in the conflict, where we have seen a pause take place, where we saw approximately 100 hostages released, we saw a pause in the conflict which allowed the additional entrance of humanitarian aid into Gaza. So we know that there is a clear track record of this working, and we believe that there continues to be space to pursue and engaged on this.

QUESTION: Is the U.S. trying to temper expectations because, as the war continues, it becomes easier for Netanyahu and for his government to maintain a hard line?

MR PATEL: I don’t think we would be saying that there is a – there is space for some progress here if we were trying to temper expectations. That’s not hyperbole; that’s just legitimately where we believe things to be as it relates to this conversation.

QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant. Going back to the – Alex and Guita’s question —

MR PATEL: So I think the important thing to remember is that we are not going to hesitate to defend our people and hold responsible all who harm U.S. personnel at the time and place of our choosing. And as I just said, if we continue to see threats and attacks from these militia groups, we will respond to them and we will hold those responsible to account. What you also have to remember is that absent attacks against U.S. personnel for many of these groups based in Iraq, there certainly would be no reason for these kinds of strikes.

QUESTION: But you are working to degrade their capabilities until – to that end?

MR PATEL: I am not going to speculate or offer a timeline here.

QUESTION: One more question. Two days ago, the Iraqi foreign ministry said that there were a phone call between the Iraqi foreign minister and Secretary Blinken, and they touched two issues: The U.S. strikes in Iraq, which there is a lot of reactions to that, which they see that this is a violation to the Iraqi sovereignty; and also they said that the U.S. sanctions on the Iraqi bank is – there’s no explanation for that. Is there any political reason behind that, or is there any legal issue the U.S. are not giving as details? And I haven’t seen any readout from the State Department for that phone call between Dr. Fuad Hussein and Secretary Blinken.

MR PATEL: So first and foremost, let me just say we fully respect Iraqi sovereignty, and the Iraqi Government itself has rejected attacks on U.S. and coalition advisors by these Iran-aligned militia groups. I don’t have any policy updates for you on our sanctions regime, and I’m happy to check back on a readout between the Secretary and the foreign minister to see if we have any updates there.

QUESTION: My last question, Vedant.

QUESTION: Do you think that your attacks in Iraq is not violating the Iraqi sovereignty, which they say that?

MR PATEL: We have fully respect for Iraqi sovereignty. And the Iraqi Government itself has rejected these kinds of attacks on U.S. and coalition forces. What these strikes are about —

MR PATEL: I’m answering his question, Said. What these strikes are about are holding those who attempt to harm – and in some cases have lethally harmed – our personnel and our service members doing important work in the region.

QUESTION: And this is not violation to the Iraqi sovereignty?

MR PATEL: It is – it is not. It is us holding Iran-backed malign groups accountable for their reckless and dangerous behavior.

QUESTION: Yeah, but for the record, Vedant, these guys were not underground. They were not fugitives. They could have – the United States still wields a great deal of influence in Iraq on the government, on the security forces. Why not arrest them instead of resorting to an assassination – assassination, and then compromising Iraqi sovereignty?

MR PATEL: We have urged them, Said. We have urged the Iraqi Government to take appropriate action against these groups who we believe, when they undertake these kinds of actions, they are undermining their own country’s sovereignty and drawing Iraq into a violent conflict.

QUESTION: Yes. We learned that Amos Hochstein has been handling Lebanon’s file in all aspects, not just the negotiation to stop the war or expand the war in south of Lebanon – also the presidential file, to maybe the cabinet in the future. Is it because the State Department failed to do so, or why this shift of responsibilities to a special envoy and not for NEA office?

QUESTION: Okay, one more question.

QUESTION: This ongoing negotiation, maybe it’s direct talk or indirectly between Israel and Hizballah mediated by U.S. – and other European countries helping out – to find a solution, a diplomatic solution, on the border – maybe back up Hizballah forces on the Blue Line and maybe apply 1701 in future. Can you – some reports came out that – soon that we are going to hear a ceasefire at the Lebanese border despite if there is any ceasefire in Gaza. Is it something that you can give us extra information about the ongoing negotiation?

MR PATEL: I don’t have any updates for you on that, but I’m happy to check and see if we have anything to share.

QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant. Two questions on —

MR PATEL: Well, this kind of rhetoric is just another example of the kind of behavior that we believe to be just incredibly destabilizing, risky, and dangerous. And so we have repeatedly said that the United States does not harbor any hostile intent towards the DPRK. We continue to be willing to engage with Pyongyang without preconditions, and we simultaneously will continue to consult closely with the Republic of Korea and Japan trilaterally, as well as other allies and partners, on how to continue to best engage the DPRK and deter this kind of aggressive behavior.

QUESTION: One more, quick. The New York Times reported that Russia released $12 million in frozen funds from North Korea and allowed North Korea to use its own bank account. How concerned are you about Russia violating UN sanctions?

MR PATEL: Of course it is something that we are deeply concerned about – not just this specific event, but we spend a good amount of time in this briefing room talking about the closening of relations between the DPRK and Russia. There continues to be a clear track record of that, and so it’s something that we’re continuously monitoring. And like I said, we will continue to consult closely with allies and partners on how to best deter this kind of aggressive behavior.

MR PATEL: Cindy, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. I have a couple questions on Ukraine. Do you have any reaction to President Zelenskyy firing his army chief?

MR PATEL: That is a sovereign decision for the Government of Ukraine to make, and I will defer to them to speak to that.

QUESTION: Right. And closer to home, with foreign aid at an impasse in Congress, can you talk about the consequences if aid for Ukraine in particular dries up? There have been some assessments that Russia could win the war outright within weeks or months. And is there any way that the Biden administration has to bridge the gap if there’s just a more permanent —

Of course, part of that conversation continues to be supporting our Ukrainian partners. Passing this will allow us to continue to support them in their effort to protect their sovereignty and to protect their territorial integrity. They’re also – not funding this would severely limit our ability to get humanitarian aid to some of the places where it is needed, including in Ukraine but also in Gaza. Of course, also, it would have dire impacts on our ability to support our Israeli partners as they hold these Hamas terrorists accountable for October 7th. So the consequences are surely cross-cutting, and that is why you’ve heard the Secretary say, in the clearest terms, there is not another alternative here.

QUESTION: Just to follow up on that, Vedant.

QUESTION: Senate just approved the supplemental – Senate Appropriations – back to Congress, but more broadly speaking, the past few days, Ukraine has been facing assault – increasing assault – from Russia. Given that and also given increasing criticism from allies, most notably today from Polish PM, how concerned are you about the U.S. – the state of – current state of U.S. leadership?

MR PATEL: Well, look, Alex, I think it’s important to not link these two things together. While we will continue to work tirelessly to get the supplemental across the finish line – I think you saw the President speak about this quite clearly earlier in the week – simultaneously, though, Alex, in the various conflicts that are currently taking place around the world, what there continues to be in common is this desire for the United States to continue to play its role as a key diplomatic partner on a lot of these endeavors. Countries around the world are seeking further U.S. engagement in preventing these conflicts from spreading and holding malign actors accountable. And so that is a role we’ll continue to play and we’ll continue to engage. You saw the Secretary do some of this on his travels as it relates to the conflict in Gaza right now.

QUESTION: And on flip side – don’t want to drag you into a Tucker Carlson debate, but given the fact that the Secretary has been on the record urging journalists, American journalists, not to go to Russia, and also GEC came up with the special report just two weeks ago approving – confirming how Russia has been using historically same tools to push its propaganda in the Western capitals, what is the Secretary’s position on this very episode?

MR PATEL: The Secretary really doesn’t have a position on this specific episode. What I will just reiterate, Alex, is that our message to all Americans, not just journalists, is that there is a pretty clear Travel Advisory warning when it comes to Russia. It’s a Level Four. It’s do not travel, and the reasons for why that is our very serious recommendation are pretty clear. And we have seen, just in the past year and a half, American journalists being detained in Russia just for doing their job.

Nike, I know you had your hand up. I’m sorry for breezing past you. Go ahead.

MR PATEL: I’m just not going to get into the specifics of these conversations and these proposals, as this continues to be something ongoing. But like the Secretary said, we continue to believe that there is space for progress here, and we’ll continue to play a role in moving that forward.

QUESTION: And then separately, on the Pakistan elections, I know you have been asked several times. Now that the elections were held, does the United States have a message to people in – not – sorry. Does the United States have a message to people in Pakistan after their controversial elections?

And as you heard me say earlier in the week, we are concerned about the restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression. We are tracking reports of restrictions on internet and cellphone access across Pakistan on polling day. And we, along with the international community, will continue to emphasize the importance of democratic institutions, a free press, a vibrant civil society, and expanded opportunities for political participation of all of Pakistan’s citizens. But I am not going to get ahead of any of the other official election results, so I’m not going to comment on this any further.

QUESTION: How would you characterize the relations – the working relationship between the United States and Pakistan moving forward?

MR PATEL: Look, you heard me say is that – what you heard me say is that when it comes to Pakistan’s leaders, that is for the people of Pakistan to decide. Our interest is in the democratic process, and we are interested in taking the appropriate steps to continue to foster our relationship, our partnership with the Government of Pakistan, whatever it should be.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?

MR PATEL: Sure. Go ahead.

QUESTION: So following up on Pakistan.

QUESTION: Thank you for taking the question. So far the preliminary results have been Imran Khan’s party, I think at this point, with leading in 136 districts. That’s the three times the next closest one. You’re now seeing reports of Pakistan of two separate things: one, the army is in the streets, the police are in the streets, they’re surrounding polling stations. And you’re seeing a lot of reports and videos of efforts to change the vote. They’re kicking election officials out. There’s a lot of concern that number – 136 – by tomorrow morning in Pakistan could be pushed down lower.

Separately, you’re seeing also surface in Pakistan an attempt by the kind of military-connected officials to take the independents who are associated with PTI and pressure them to join other parties. So even though Imran Khan’s party might win a majority, after torture and bribery, you could have a different government take power.

So you’ve from the podium stood up for free and fair elections, but free and fair elections are one thing. But if you torture your way to a majority after that, that doesn’t quite – that doesn’t quite live up to kind of the values that you are stating from here. So this seems like a pretty pivotal moment —

QUESTION: — for America and the – and Pakistan’s relationship.

MR PATEL: Look, Ryan, the thing about preliminary results is that they are preliminary. And I am not going to get ahead of any official results, and so I’m not going to comment or speculate further on what a government could look like, what the makeup could be, or anything like that. What I will just —

QUESTION: You’d be okay if —

MR PATEL: What I will just reiterate again is that we condemn all instances of election- related violence, even some of the kinds that you are describing that took place in the weeks preceding the election as well as on election day. We also believe that these kinds of actions have affected a number of political parties across Pakistan, and we’re also concerned about the steps that were taken to restrict freedom of expression, specifically around internet and cellphone use. But again, I’m just not going to —

QUESTION: Thank you. Just real quick —

MR PATEL: — speculate on results or government makeup.

QUESTION: But let’s say the Pakistani people do elect a majority of independents associated with the PTI, but then after a bunch of backroom negotiations, which are accompanied by reports of torture, all of a sudden there’s another candidate that has a majority. Would that be okay with the United States?

MR PATEL: I’m not going to – I’m not going to speculate or hypothesize on —

QUESTION: You can’t say that wouldn’t be okay with the United States?

MR PATEL: I’m not going to hypothesize on a made-up situation that you’re just describing right now. We will at some point – I have no doubt that the United States of America will comment on the election – official election results when they happen, but till then we will defer to the electoral process, which we believe – we take very seriously.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?

MR PATEL: Let’s – I’ll come back to you. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. During the last few days, we have seen a rise in the terrorism in Pakistan.

QUESTION: A couple of bomb blasts killing security forces and innocent people in Pakistan. Pakistani foreign ministry officials say that they have shared some evidence with the United States and some other foreign countries regarding the involvement of neighboring countries sponsoring terrorism in Pakistan. You have seen reports or what you want to say about that? (Inaudible) of cooperation with Pakistan?

MR PATEL: I don’t have any – I don’t have any comments on that, and I would defer you to the Government of Pakistan to speak further on that.

I’m sorry I missed you earlier. Go ahead. Yeah.

QUESTION: So would the U.S. accept the results of Pakistan election while they’re being tainted by rigging, violence, torture?

MR PATEL: So again, I think I’m starting to sound like a little bit like a broken record on this, but we’re going to continue to monitor the electoral process. We’re not going to get ahead of any official results, and we want to see a process that took place in a way that allowed for broad participation, freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. And there were some clear restrictions of the exercise of freedom that took place – addressed some of those in speaking to Nike and Ryan’s questions, specifically around internet and cellphone use – and those, of course, are concerning. We’ve also seen reports of election-based violence in the weeks leading up to this, as well as on election day. Those continue to be concerning, and those, we believe, have impacted a number of political parties. But again, I’m just not going to get ahead of this, and it is truly up to the people of Pakistan to decide their political future.

QUESTION: Just last question. Some here do think the U.S. has been fairly muted on human rights violations in Pakistan, but the focal point between bilateral talks or the relations between U.S. and Pakistan is the Pakistan military, so it doesn’t really matter what the outcome of the election is because U.S. prefers to deal with the Pakistan military. Is that true? That’s the question.

MR PATEL: I would certainly take issue with that characterization. We are interested in the – first, let me take a step back. The makeup of the Government of Pakistan is up for the Pakistani people to decide. What the United States is interested is in deepening our partnership and cooperation with the Government of Pakistan irregardless of what the makeup of the government is. That is not for us to decide. There are a number of areas which we believe we’ve got some strategic shared priorities, and we look forward to continuing to work in that space.

MR PATEL: Nick, I think we’re going to – that’s all we’ve got time for anyways. Go ahead.

QUESTION: So two questions, then.

QUESTION: The first is: The U.S. embassy in Colombia put out a security alert a couple of weeks ago warning about the risk of using dating apps. Apparently eight citizens died between November and December in Medellin after being drugged on dates from dating apps. Are you aware of this issue? Any comment on it, and is it happening in any other countries where Americans are being targeted?

QUESTION: And then a lot lighter topic. More than 100 million people around the world are going to be watching the Super Bowl this Sunday. Wondered if you had any predictions.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.) (Laughter.)

MR PATEL: I will be one of them. I will be one of them. Look, I grew up —

MR PATEL: I grew up in San Jose.

QUESTION: Off the record. Off the record.

MR PATEL: Said – Said said right – I grew up in San Jose, California. Go Niners.

MR PATEL: So I will be – I will be tuning in.

All right. Thanks, everybody. Have a safe Super Bowl weekend.

QUESTION: Thank you so much.

MR PATEL: I will see you all next week.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:46 p.m.)


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