White House says Israel ‘making effort’ to better protect Gaza civilians

National Security Council spokesman Kirby credits IDF for publishing online map to help Gazans avoid fighting; ‘There’s not a whole lot of modern militaries that would do that’

US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, on November 30, 2023. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP)
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, on November 30, 2023. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP)

The White House believes Israel is “making an effort” to minimize civilian deaths in Gaza, a senior official said Sunday, as international concern mounted over the numbers killed in the resumed war with Hamas.

Speaking on the US Sunday talk shows, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby also insisted that US intelligence was unaware of any secret, advance Hamas blueprint for its brutal October 7 attack on Israel that triggered the conflict.

The New York Times reported last week that Israeli authorities had obtained such a document a year before the attack occurred, and a report on Israel’s Channel 12 Sunday claimed plans for a Hamas assault on the scale of the October 7 attack were in Israeli hands as early as 2018.

War erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing over 240 hostages of all ages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities. The vast majority of those killed as gunmen seized border communities were civilians — including babies, children and the elderly.

In response, Israel has vowed to eliminate the Hamas terror group ruling Gaza, launching a campaign that has left vast swaths of the Strip in ruin and thousands of civilians dead according to unverified Palestinian claims. The toll has drawn international criticism and pressure on Israel, including from the US.

Kirby told ABC’s “This Week” that Israel had responded to US appeals to protect civilians.

Palestinian civilians flee Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip after the IDF called on people to leave certain areas in the city, as battles between Israel and Hamas continue on December 3, 2023. (Mahmud Hams / AFP)

“We believe they have been receptive to our messages here of trying to minimize civilian casualties,” he said, including by publishing online a map of places where Gazans could go to find safety.

“There’s not a whole lot of modern militaries that would do that… to telegraph their punches in that way. So they are making an effort,” he said.

Kirby was also asked about the Red Cross visiting the remaining hostages, which Israel and the US said was part of the truce agreement that expired on Friday.

“Hamas agreed to allow the Red Cross access to these hostages while the pause was in place, and of course, that didn’t happen and is still not happening,” Kirby said, calling it “unacceptable.”

An unnamed Israeli diplomatic official was quoted by Channel 12 news on Sunday night saying the IDF “updated” and “made amendments” to its plans for expanding operations into the southern Gaza Strip in light of US concerns. “We did not ignore the American points, and this will become clear in the coming few days,” the official was quoted saying.

According to Hamas, more than 15,500 people have been killed in Gaza since the beginning of the war, but those numbers cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires.

A new interactive Gaza map issued by the IDF splits the Strip into hundreds of zones. The IDF said December 1, 2023, that it will be used to notify Palestinian civilians of active combat zones (screenshot)

On Saturday, US Vice President Kamala Harris was sharply critical of Israel, echoing comments from administration officials who have demanded Israel change the way it is waging the war to better protect civilians.

“Too many innocent Palestinians have been killed,” Harris said from Dubai. “Frankly, the scale of civilian suffering and the images and videos coming from Gaza are devastating.”

In California, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Saturday that Israel would be unsuccessful in its campaign to oust Hamas from Gaza unless it also shielded noncombatants in tough urban environments, drawing on the experience of the US military fighting the Islamic State in Iraq.

“Like Hamas, ISIS was deeply embedded in urban areas. And the international coalition against ISIS worked hard to protect civilians and create humanitarian corridors, even during tough battles,” Austin told lawmakers, corporate and defense leaders, and government officials attending the Reagan National Defense Forum.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (R) and his US counterpart Lloyd Austin shake hands while delivering joint statements at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv on October 13, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“So the lesson is not that you can win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. The lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians,” he stressed. “If you drive [Gaza’s civilians] into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”

The comments came as Israel has resumed its intensive air and ground campaign following a week-long temporary truce. The truce began on November 24, with the first release of a group of hostages after some 50 days in Hamas captivity, and broke down early Friday morning. Both sides blamed the other for the breakdown of a truce deal and the resumption of violence, though the US backed Israel in blaming Hamas for violating the truce.

During the truce, 105 civilians were released from Gaza, including 81 Israelis, 23 Thai nationals and 1 Filipino, in exchange for 210 Palestinian prisoners, all of them women or minors.

Israel also allowed an influx of humanitarian aid into the Strip.

Ron Dermer, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, insisted on ABC that efforts to minimize civilian casualties were deliberate and “unprecedented.”

“If we wanted to do it fast,” he said, “we’d harm a lot more civilians.”

International concern has been intensifying over the toll in Gaza.

“I cannot find words strong enough to express our concern over what we’re witnessing,” the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said Sunday on X, formerly Twitter, demanding a “Ceasefire. NOW.”

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