Israel must eliminate the Hamas terror group, but reoccupying the Gaza Strip would be a “big mistake,” US President Joe Biden said in an interview released on Sunday, as Israeli troops prepared for a ground invasion in the territory.
Speaking to CBS news program “60 Minutes,” Biden also said a path should remain toward Palestinian statehood, while expressing confidence that Israeli forces would try to minimize civilian casualties and take steps to avoid a dire humanitarian crisis in the Strip, days after Israel ordered some 1 million Gazans in the northern part of the enclave to decamp for the southern half.
Israel is seeking to eradicate Hamas in reaction to the terror group’s brutal rampage across southern on October 7, in which 1,300 people — over 1,000 of them civilians — were killed and at least 155 more taken hostage to Gaza. Among the victims were men, women, and children, including dozens of babies. Some of the victims were mutilated and there were reportedly incidents of rape, and torture of children. In some location, entire families were murdered. Thousands more were injured, hundreds of them seriously. Hamas has continued to rain rockets on southern and central Israel, causing further injuries and deaths.
Israel has retaliated with artillery and airstrikes, and officials from the Hamas-controlled health ministry estimate that more than 2,600 Palestinian have died. Israel says it is targeting terrorist infrastructure and all areas where Hamas operates or hides out, while issuing evacuation warnings to civilians in regions it plans to attack.
Biden, who has staunchly backed Israel in the wake of the Hamas murder spree, and is reportedly mulling a visit there in coming days, said the terror group’s “barbarism [was] as consequential as the Holocaust.”
“I think Israel has to respond. They have to go after Hamas,” he said. “Hamas is a bunch of cowards. They’re hiding behind the civilians.”
Invading and “taking out the extremists” is a “necessary requirement,” he added.
Asked if Hamas must be eliminated entirely, he replied: “Yes I do.”
However, asked if he would support any occupation of Gaza by Israel, Biden replied: “I think it’d be a big mistake.”
“Look, what happened in Gaza, in my view, is Hamas, and the extreme elements of Hamas, don’t represent all the Palestinian people. And I think that it would be a mistake for Israel to occupy Gaza again.”
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) October 15, 2023
Israel took control of the Gaza Strip during the 1967 Six Day War, then unilaterally left in 2005, enabling the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority to take control of the enclave. A year later, in response to rocket fire, Israel imposed an air, land and sea blockade on the 140-square-mile (362-square-kilometer) strip of land, which is also bordered by Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. Egypt also maintains the blockade.
After Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, a power struggle developed, leading to open conflict in 2007 between Hamas and Fatah, the party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Over 100 people were killed in a bloody coup that saw Hamas seize control of Gaza, which it has controlled since. The Islamist Hamas, founded in the late 1980s, has been declared a terrorist organization by Israel, the US, the UK, Canada and the European Union. Some other countries have designated only its armed wing as a terror group.
Israeli officials say they have no desire to reoccupy the Strip, home to some 2.2 million Palestinians.
“We have no interest to occupy Gaza or to stay in Gaza,” UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan told CNN late Sunday. “But since we are fighting for our survival and the only way, as [Biden] himself defined, is to obliterate Hamas, we will have to do whatever is needed to obliterate their capabilities.”
Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Herzog, also told the network “we have no desire to control the lives of over two million Palestinian.”
Israel has not said who it envisions replacing Hamas in Gaza, where the terror group has ruled with an iron fist since taking over in 2007.
The US president said he did not think Israel would be open to pursuing a two-state solution with the Palestinians as it heads toward war, “but I think Israel understands that a significant portion of Palestinian people do not share the views of Hamas and Hezbollah.”
“There needs to be a Palestinian authority. There needs to be a path to a Palestinian state,” he continued, reiterating the long-standing US call for a two-state solution.
Israel has faced grave warnings about the implications of putting boots on the ground in Gaza, with aid groups warning of a humanitarian disaster, fears of the conflict escalating, and the challenges of separating terrorists from civilians in the impoverished, densely occupied territory.
“I’m confident that Israel is going to act under the rules of war,” Biden said in the interview. ”There’s standards that democratic institutions and countries go by. And I’m confident that there’s going to be an ability for the innocents in Gaza to be able to have access to medicine and food and water.”
“60 Minutes” journalist Scott Pelley also asked Biden if he could foresee US troops joining the war.
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Biden, who pulled US troops out of Afghanistan and has insisted that none will be sent to aid Ukraine as it holds off a Russian invasion, replied.
“Israel has one of the finest fighting forces… I guarantee we’re gonna provide them everything they need,” he said.
The United States has already deployed two aircraft carriers to the eastern Mediterranean in a powerful show of support for Israel.
The interview came as a senior administration official said Biden was considering a trip to Israel in the coming days, though no travel has been finalized.
An aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier told The Times of Israel that the premier had invited Biden make a solidarity visit.
Such a trip would be a powerful symbol of sympathy and support following the brutal attack by Hamas and a chance for Biden to personally affirm to the Israeli people the US is standing firm behind them.
But Biden’s presence could be seen as a provocative move by Hamas’s chief sponsor, Iran, or potentially viewed as tone-deaf by Arab nations as civilian casualties mount in Gaza. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has already been traveling around the Mideast this past week trying to prevent the war with Hamas from igniting a broader regional conflict.