Since the October 7th attacks, the Biden Administration has offered significant support to Israel in the form of military aid, and diplomatic backing at the United Nations. As the Palestinian death toll is estimated to have surpassed twenty-three thousand people, and the surviving population is facing a humanitarian crisis amid an Israeli bombardment, the White House has continued to express its “concern” about civilian casualties and the amount of aid reaching Gaza, while defending Israel’s campaign. This has led to increasing criticism, both abroad and among some allies at home. Congress, however, has remained largely supportive of the war, even as the Administration has twice bypassed the legislature to make “emergency” weapons sales to Israel.
To talk about the Administration’s policy, I recently spoke by phone with John Kirby, the strategic-communications coördinator for the National Security Council, and the person who has been perhaps the Administration’s most prominent spokesperson throughout the conflict in Gaza. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed whether Israel is operating according to the laws of war, what the Netanyahu government’s endgame is for Gaza and the West Bank, and whether America’s warnings to Israel about civilian deaths are being taken seriously.
What are the Administration’s current hopes for the war in Gaza?
We’ve been very clear, very consistent. No. 1, we want to make sure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself against the threat emanating from Gaza, which is of course by Hamas. And Hamas still represents a viable threat to the Israeli people. They still have quite a number of fighters and leaders available to them, as well as resources, and they have said publicly that they intend to do October 7th again and again and again. Number two, to get those hostages out. They’ve still got around a hundred and forty or so hostages that they’re holding, or groups affiliated with them are holding, and we haven’t forgotten them. Number three is humanitarian assistance, and the United States is leading the world when it comes to advancing and increasing humanitarian assistance into Gaza.
Leading the world, you said?
Leading the world in terms of the effort to get humanitarian assistance. I’m not saying that the majority of all the aid is American aid, but we are—the United States, President Biden has been personally involved in pushing forward efforts to increase that aid and assistance into Gaza. Working with Egypt to get the Rafah crossing open—that was the result of personal diplomacy by the President. It was his personal involvement with Netanyahu and Sisi that opened up the Rafah gate.
Another big goal of ours in Gaza is, of course, humanitarian assistance. We want to make sure, as Israel prosecutes their operations, that they do so in the most precise, careful, deliberate way. We really are pushing hard to see if we can get a marked reduction in civilian casualties and in the damage to civilian infrastructure. We had been talking to the Israelis a lot about this transition to a new phase of combat operations, a transition to lower-intensity operations, which of course would comport with more targeted operations, more precision, and fewer civilian casualties.
You said in this answer, and you have said previously, that “We continue to urge the Israelis to be as careful and cautious as possible.” Why do they have to be urged to be cautious?
Well, we’ve seen many thousands, many, many thousands of civilians killed in the conflict, caught in the crossfire. We’ve seen many, many more thousands wounded. Hundreds of thousands displaced.
I don’t mean, Why should they be cautious? I mean, Why does a democratic country and ally need to be urged to be cautious? Why aren’t they being cautious naturally?
Well, that’s a sort of judgment that we’re not making of them. We’re not making a judgment about each and every operation that they conduct. That’s a question that the Israelis have gotten and should continue to get, in terms of how they’re conducting their operations. Let me try it this way: any modern military, certainly a military of a democracy that is fighting a war like this, should be expected to uphold the law of armed conflict, and should be expected to conduct their operations with as little impact on innocent civilians as possible.
Is that happening?
We have seen indications . . . First of all, they have been receptive to that message.
We have seen indications that they have taken steps to try to get better at reducing civilian casualties. They have, for instance, used a smaller amount of forces when they went into north Gaza than they were originally going to. Some of that was an outgrowth of the advice and counsel we gave them. They have reduced the number of air strikes that they’re conducting. So they are taking steps. But, look, I don’t want there to be a shred of doubt: the number of civilian casualties—the right number is zero. We don’t want to see any. We don’t want to see any more. There’s absolutely no question that the Israelis can and should do more to reduce those civilian casualties.
The President accused Israel of “indiscriminate bombing” at one point—I’m curious what that means.
Look, he was certainly reflecting a concern that we had, that when it comes to air operations there were ways they could have been more precise.
The national-security adviser, Jake Sullivan, was asked if Israel was operating according to the rules of war. He said, “I’m not going to sit here and play judge or jury on that question.” And you previously said, “I am not aware of any kind of formal assessment being done by the United States government to analyze the compliance with international law.” Are these things that you’re concerned about?
We have seen no indication that they are violating the law of war. And, as I said earlier, and Jake said, we’re not going to hold a court of inquiry here to determine that. We’re not going to armchair-quarterback every single operation and event that they conduct.
We are giving them weapons, though, right?
Well, just wait, wait. We are going to continue to talk to them about the need to continue to conduct operations in the most precise, deliberate, careful way possible. The Israelis aren’t waking up every morning, strapping their boots on, and going into the fight with the mind-set that they are deliberately going to kill civilians and that they’re going to reduce civilian infrastructure to rubble for the sake of doing it. That would certainly be a war crime.
Civilian deaths are happening, and happening at a rate that obviously we’re not comfortable with. But it doesn’t mean that they are intentionally trying to wipe the people of Gaza off the map the same way that Hamas wants to wipe the Israeli people off the map.
“Indiscriminate bombing” sounds not great.
Again, the President said that back in December, referring to our increasing concern about the need for the Israelis to be more precise.