Feb 13, 2024 - World

Scoop: Israeli minister blocking flour Bibi promised Biden would be allowed into Gaza

Bezalel Smotrich, Israel's finance minister,

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. Photo: Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Israeli ultranationalist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich is blocking a U.S.-funded flour shipment to Gaza because its recipient is the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), two Israeli and U.S. officials told Axios.

Why it matters: U.S. officials said this is a violation of a commitment Benjamin Netanyahu personally made to President Biden several weeks ago and another reason the U.S. leader is frustrated with the Israeli prime minister.

Driving the news: The highest levels of the Biden administration brought up the possibility of the flour shipment more than a month ago.

  • The Israeli war and security cabinets approved the delivery of the flour from the port of Ashdod in southern Israel to Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing, Israeli officials said.
  • Biden and Secretary of State Tony Blinken have already publicly thanked the Israeli government for allowing the flour shipment to go through.

Yes, but: The shipment has been stuck at the Ashdod port for weeks.

  • According to U.S. and Israeli officials, Smotrich blocked the transfer of the flour after he was notified that it was destined for UNRWA, the primary aid group in Gaza. He ordered the Israeli customs service not to release the shipment as long as UNRWA is the recipient.
  • UNRWA has been under international scrutiny recently over Israeli accusations that 12 of its employees took an active part in the Oct. 7 attacks. Several countries, including the U.S., have temporarily suspended their funding to UNRWA, pending the results of an independent investigation ordered by the UN.

What they're saying: Smotrich's office confirmed to Axios he ordered the customs service not to release the flour shipments and, in coordination with Netanyahu, asked officials to find a new delivery mechanism that ensures the flour doesn't reach Hamas.

  • "There is a consensus inside the Israeli cabinet of the need to prevent the aid from reaching Hamas and I will use my authority to make sure this is the case," said Smotrich, who accused UNRWA of being a "central part" of the "Hamas war machine." UNRWA has rejected such accusations in the past.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in Tuesday's daily briefing that the flour the U.S. is funding provides food for more than 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza and stressed it is critical the shipment reaches Gaza.

  • Miller said the U.S. is talking to the Israeli government to ensure the flour reaches Gaza on a permanent basis over months and not as a one off.
  • "The Israel government made a commitment to allow the flour to go in and we expect them to implement this commitment," Miller said.

The big picture: Gaza's entire population — more than 2.2 million people — is facing crisis or worse levels of hunger, with the risk of famine increasing every day, a UN-backed body said in a report late last year.

  • About half of Gaza's population is facing emergency levels of food insecurity, the report found.

What to watch: Israeli officials said they are now trying to reroute the shipment so that it would enter Gaza through the World Food Program in order for Smotrich to release the hold.

Go deeper: Biden says U.S. will do "everything possible" to get new Gaza hostage deal

Editor's note: This story has been updated with Miller's and Smotrich's statements.

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