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USAID official who resigned wants Biden administration to end 'gaslighting' on Gaza

Alexander Smith wants the Biden administration to stop being 'mealy-mouthed about crimes that are committed in Gaza'
Alexander Smith takes a photo with the USAID mission in Nepal in October last year.
Alexander Smith takes a photo with the USAID mission in Nepal in October 2023 (Supplied by Alexander Smith)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

After publicly resigning from his position as a senior advisor to the US Agency for International Development (USAID) this week, Alexander Smith told Middle East Eye he is urging the Biden administration to "end the gaslighting" around the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Smith, a senior advisor on maternal and child health and nutrition, tendered his resignation on 27 May, following four years of working with USAID, after his presentation on child and maternal health in Gaza was cancelled and told his contract would be terminated.

In an interview with Middle East Eye, Smith said he does not care so much about his employment situation, but hopes his resignation will shed light on the administration's refusal to condemn Israel for its attacks on civilians and its blocking of aid where parts of the enclave are experiencing famine.

"I speak for a lot of people when I say we'd like to see an end to the gaslighting and more truth-telling when it comes to Gaza, more stating facts that match the reality that we're seeing on the ground," Smith told MEE.

Smith lamented US officials' unwillingness to speak publicly about the situation in Gaza, and wants top Biden officials like USAID director Samantha Power to speak out about the root cause of the humanitarian crises in Gaza: the military offensive.

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In his resignation letter addressed to Power, shared with MEE, Smith wrote that since October, when the war broke out, "the United States has consistently provided political cover for Israel’s actions, blocked UN votes for ceasefire and recognition of Palestinian statehood, dismissed the possibility of legal redress in the international courts, and provided tens of billions in financial support and arms to continue the slaughter".

"Years ago, I read all of your books on genocide, on the integrity of international humanitarian systems, and on idealism.

"I had thought that you and our leadership at USAID would surely speak out or allow others to speak out about what is true and what is right in a framework of international law," he wrote in his letter to the USAID director.

'Shameful that misinformation can spread freely'

The timeline around Smith's resignation began in February this year, when Smith submitted an abstract to a conference of USAID colleagues and partners.

The abstract he submitted was about the health outcomes for mothers and children in Gaza as well as the long-term health implications of "starving and bombarding pregnant women" in the current war on Gaza and previous conflicts.

'It is a bit raw, but it's very liberating, in a way, to finally be able to speak publicly about Gaza and the West Bank'

- Alexander Smith

After a rigorous multi-stage vetting process, Smith's abstract was accepted for presentation. He was one of several people who were selected out of 368 total applications, he said.

"I was impressed that USAID was going to allow my submission to go ahead because I knew it is a controversial issue," he told MEE.

However, on 20 May, two days before he was scheduled to present, he was requested to meet with USAID's Middle East bureau leaders, who told him that he would need to revise his presentation.

"They wanted me to look at a language guide that they sent me, which prohibited specific words, words like Palestine," he said.

"I think any implication or any insinuation that there is a state of Palestine, that was what they wanted to have removed."

USAID also wanted him to remove a slide regarding international humanitarian law (IHL). Smith, being a lawyer himself, thought it would be valuable to include some information about the IHL framework, which makes "very clear that intentional starvation is never okay".

Smith wanted to continue with the presentation because his focus was to spread awareness and knowledge about the ongoing humanitarian crisis that women and children are facing in Gaza, so he said he agreed to make the changes.

He even said he agreed to delete an entire slide dealing with IHL.

On the afternoon of 22 May, Smith saw that the presentation no longer appeared on the conference site and had been scrapped altogether. Then on 23 May, his employer, Highbury, told him his contract would be terminated due to "personality differences" but that he had the option to resign.

'When Russia bombs a hospital in Ukraine, it's an atrocity. When Israel bombs 36 hospitals in Gaza, it's something they're looking into - they're concerned about it'

- Alexander Smith

In the same week Smith was supposed to give his presentation, Israel's Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer gave an interview with Sky News, in which the minister publicly said "there is no famine in Gaza".

"I really feel like it's on all of us to speak truthfully about this issue, and it's shameful that misinformation can travel the world very freely while accurate information, such as in my presentation, can't be shared," Smith told MEE.

A USAID official told MEE that Smith's "work responsibilities did not include" the agency's response to the war on Gaza, and that his presentation "did not go through the standard agency review and approval process".

"USAID did not take any personnel actions in response to this presentation," a USAID spokesperson said in a statement given to MEE.

"As an Agency, we value and intentionally seek out a diversity of viewpoints."

Middle East Eye reached out to Highbury for comment, but did not get a response by the time of publication.

'Liberating, in a way'

Smith has become the latest US official to resign in protest against the Biden administration's approach to Israel's war on Gaza.

In the immediate days following the 7 October Hamas-led attacks that killed around 1,200 people and saw over 200 taken as hostages, Israel launched a full-scale assault on Gaza, with first an indiscriminate aerial bombardment campaign, followed by a ground invasion.

So far, Israel has killed more than 36,000 Palestinians, and injured more than 80,000 more - the majority of those killed are women and children, according to the local health ministry.

The US responded swiftly with a resolute backing of Israel's actions, and fast-tracked weapons shipments to the country while also shielding Israel from diplomatic attacks at the United Nations.

Alexander Smith poses for a photo with colleagues in Zambia in the first week of May 2024.
Alexander Smith poses for a photo with colleagues in Zambia in the first week of May 2024 (Supplied by Alexander Smith)

The first official to resign was the State Department's Josh Paul, who oversaw US weapons transfers to other countries. Months later, State Department official Annelle Sheline resigned from her position, citing the US support for the war.

Then, last week, career State Department official Stacey Gilbert also resigned. Her reason was due to the Biden administration's conclusion in a recent report that Israel was not blocking humanitarian aid into Gaza, which international aid groups say Israel is doing.

Smith also isn't the first USAID official to resign this year. Agnieszka Sykes left her job at USAID earlier this year.

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Several US officials who have spoken to MEE over the past several months on the condition of anonymity have said they have wanted to resign from their positions in the administration over the war but felt that they needed to stay to push senior-level officials to do more, publicly and privately, to help the Palestinian people.

Smith said that inside USAID, there is some room for officials to speak internally "about the depression, the horror, the anxiety, and the feelings they were having".

But to speak publicly about Gaza would get you in trouble he said, and Smith wants the double standard around the situation in the besieged enclave to end.

"I would love to ask Samantha Power, our administrator, to be more vocal. I think we all have a responsibility - staff and leadership - to state facts as we find them and not prioritise one country over another, one people over another, based on who they are or who's inflicting harm upon them," Smith said.

"When Russia bombs a hospital in Ukraine, it's an atrocity. When Israel bombs 36 hospitals in Gaza, it's something they're looking into - they're concerned about it," he said.

He added that the administration is "very mealy-mouthed about crimes that are committed in Gaza".

The former official said people around the world have been outraged at the US for its lack of condemnation because "anyone who has a cell phone and an Instagram account or TikTok can see that there are severe crimes being committed every day".

"And yet we don't get the same truth-telling in terms of this is happening, it feels like gaslighting."

However, Smith said the bright side of his resignation is that now he can speak out and raise awareness about the situation in Gaza.

"It is a bit raw, but it's very liberating, in a way, to finally be able to speak publicly about Gaza and the West Bank," he said.

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