White House clarifies Biden spoke of Israel when he said Gaza response ‘over the top’

After lack of clarity on president's comments, press secretary says 'US wants to see Hamas defeated,' but Israel must do so while protecting civilians

President Joe Biden speaks in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The White House clarified Friday that US President Joe Biden was referring to Israel’s military campaign against Hamas when he described the conduct of the response in Gaza as “over the top” the previous day.

“He was obviously talking about Israel’s conduct in Gaza,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said when asked about the matter during a press briefing.

“He’s been clear that the US wants to see the Hamas terror organization defeated. That is a shared goal that we have with Israel,” she continued.

“At the same time, the president has also been very clear that they must do so by ensuring that their operations are targeted and conducted in a way that they are protecting innocent civilians.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, right, accompanied by spokesman for the White House Counsel’s Office Ian Sams, seated at left, speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The president made the comments at the tail end of a White House press conference. As he was leaving the room, reporters shouted a hail of questions at him, including about “the hostage negotiations” and Netanyahu ordering the IDF to prepare for an operation in south Gaza’s Rafah.

The president turned back and said, “The hostage negotiations, look …” and returned to the microphone.

“I’m of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in Gaza, in the Gaza Strip, has been over the top. I think that, as you know, the president of Mexico, Sissi” — a reference to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi — “did not want to open up the gate to allow humanitarian material to get in. I talked to him. I convinced him to open the gate. I talked to Bibi [Netanyahu] to open the gate on the Israeli side.”

Biden went on: “I’ve been pushing really hard, really hard, to get humanitarian assistance into Gaza. There are a lot of innocent people who are starving, a lot of innocent people who are in trouble and dying, and it’s gotta stop. Number one.”

“Number two: I was also in the position that I’m the guy who made the case that we have to do much more to increase the amount of material going in, including fuel, including other items. I’ve been on the phone with the Qataris. I’ve been on the phone with the Egyptians. I’ve been on the phone with the Saudis to get as much aid as we possibly can into Gaza. They’re innocent people, innocent women and children who are also in bad, badly need of help. And so that’s what we’re pushing.”

“And I’m pushing very hard now to deal with this hostage ceasefire,” he continued. “Because, you know, I’ve been working tirelessly for this deal — how can I say this without revealing it — to lead to a sustained pause in the fighting in, in the actions taking place, in the Gaza Strip. And, because I think if we can get the delay for that, an initial delay, I think that we would be able to extend that so that we can increase the prospect that this fighting in Gaza changes.”

Biden’s initial “over the top” remarks had caused some confusion as to whether he was referring to Israel’s operations in Gaza or rather Hamas’s response to a truce proposal — as he had also used the phrase “over the top” Tuesday to describe the Hamas reaction to a US- and Israel-backed framework proposal for a truce-for-hostages deal.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also criticized Israel’s war tactics Wednesday. Biden in December accused Israel of “indiscriminate bombing.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The remarks come as the Democratic president has come under increasing domestic pressure to press Israel on a ceasefire.

The president, in his remarks on Thursday, also recalled pre-war negotiations on Saudi-Israel normalization, to help Israel fully integrate into the Middle East and defend itself against Iran. And he suggested, without offering proof, that Hamas struck on October 7 to try to prevent this process.

Afterward, the president issued a memorandum that requires US allies who receive military aid from the US to provide “credible and reliable written assurances” of their adherence to international law, including international human rights law.

It will also, for the first time, require the State Department and the Department of Defense to issue periodic reports on whether allies are meeting the requirements.

While the memo does not name Israel, it comes amid increasing calls on the US to condition aid to Israel due to concerns over its military actions in Gaza.

War broke out between Israel and Hamas following the October 7 massacre which saw about 3,000 Hamas terrorists infiltrate Israel under a barrage of rockets, killing 1,200 people and abducting 253. An estimated 136 hostages remain in Gaza, around 30 of whom are believed to be dead.

Israel’s ensuing military campaign against Hamas has seen over 27,900 Palestinians killed, according to the Hamas-run Gazan health ministry. These numbers, however, cannot be independently verified and are believed to include over 10,000 members of Hamas’s military wing who have been killed in battle and Gazans killed by misfired rockets.

Following the breakout of the war, Biden offered wholehearted support to Israel. The president visited the country 10 days after the massacre in a show of solidarity and sent two US aircraft carriers to the region to deter the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah from joining the war against Israel.

Biden and other US officials have continued to stand behind Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas, but have expressed increasing concern over the civilian death toll, suffering and humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, and the lack of clarity from Israel regarding the “day after” in Gaza. They have also pushed for Israel to agree to progress toward a two-state solution with a reformed Palestinian Authority ruling in the West Bank and Gaza — with Netanyahu repeatedly rejecting full Palestinian sovereignty and post-war PA rule.

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