InterviewIsrael interested in our help with hostage crisis -- Kirby

White House spokesperson to ToI: We share Israel’s deep fear, anger after Hamas attack

John Kirby avoids presenting Israel with any red lines in its counteroffensive against terror group but says US plans to maintain humanitarian support for Palestinians in Gaza

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, June 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, June 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby doubled down on Joe Biden’s message of support and solidarity on Tuesday after an address by the US president about the weekend Hamas terror onslaught moved many in Israel.

“We stand solidly in support of the Israeli people. We grieve with them. We share the deep and abiding fear and anger that they’re feeling right now, and it’s just important that they know that the United States has been, is and will remain their closest friend and ally,” Kirby said in an interview with The Times of Israel.

The White House spokesman spoke as the death count from Hamas’s devastating shock attack on southern border towns and a music festival on Saturday reached over 1,200 on Wednesday morning. The Health Ministry said 2,901 were injured in the assault, with over 500 still hospitalized, including 26 critically and 340 seriously. The fate of an estimated 150 people abducted and taken to the Gaza Strip remained unclear.

Israel launched a massive air campaign it says is aimed at completely destroying Hamas’s military capabilities. The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said 922 Palestinians have been killed, including 260 children and scores of other civilians. The Israel Defense Forces said it killed some 1,500 Palestinian terrorists in Israeli territory as well.

In his Tuesday address, Biden avoided explicitly calling on Israel to exercise restraint, but did make a point of saying that he told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that democracies like the US and Israel are stronger “when we act according to the rule of law… [and] uphold the laws of war.”

Asked whether the US might eventually present any red lines to Israel regarding what it will accept as the IDF readies for a potential ground incursion that could last for months, Kirby decidedly avoided doing so.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken looks on as President Joe Biden speaks about the Palestinian militant group Hamas’ attacks on Israel in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on October 10, 2023. (Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP)

“Our focus right now is making sure that they have the tools they need to defend themselves against this truly historic, unprecedented level of violence against their people,” Kirby said.

He also did not criticize Israel’s decision to effectively lock down Gaza by closing its border crossings with the Strip and bombing targets at Egypt’s Rafah crossing. Israel has also halted the supply of fuel, water and electricity into the crowded coastal enclave.

Pressed on whether Israel should allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, Kirby said, “I can’t speak for what the Israeli government will do or won’t do.”

However, he clarified that the US “has every intention to continue humanitarian support into Gaza.”

The Biden administration has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, which serves as a critical lifeline for Gazans.

The US is also coordinating with Cairo to establish a humanitarian corridor between Gaza and Egypt for Palestinian civilians as well as the several hundred US citizens in the Strip looking to evacuate, Kirby added, confirming an NBC News report.

Palestinians inspect the damage of destroyed building after Israeli airstrikes in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, October 10, 2023. (Hatem Ali/AP)

Biden also urged Netanyahu during their Tuesday phone call to try and minimize civilian casualties as it prepares to widen its counteroffensive, a US official said.

“Nobody wants to see any more innocent life taken anywhere,” Kirby added, asserting that Israel and the US share this common belief. “That’s what separates us from terrorists like Hamas who have indiscriminately in the last few days butchered, slaughtered and tortured innocent Israelis and people from other nations as well.”

In his nationally televised address Tuesday that earned accolades across the Israeli political spectrum, Biden expressed his horror over the Hamas attack and detailed the “sheer evil” of the terror group’s actions.

“Parents butchered, using their bodies to try to protect their children; stomach-turning reports of babies being killed; entire families slain; young people massacred while attending a musical festival… women raped, assaulted, paraded as trophies,” he recounted.

Biden appeared to be one of the first officials to confirm uncorroborated reports of rape by Hamas terrorists.

An IDF soldier prepares to remove the bodies of Israelis killed during an October 7, 2023, attack by Palestinian terrorists, in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, in southern Israel bordering the Gaza Strip, on October 10, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

“I think it’s fairly obvious that given the communications we’ve had with Israeli officials, given the press reporting, given the barbaric imagery coming out of there, we’re very comfortable in the validity of these reports of rape and torture,” Kirby said.

The White House spokesman said the Biden administration has offered experts from the US military and intelligence communities to assist Israel with the ongoing hostage crisis, acknowledging that Americans are among those being held by Hamas.

“We will continue to consult with Israeli officials about hostage recovery efforts and be ready, willing and able to provide again any counsel and assistance as required,” Kirby said, revealing that Jerusalem has already “expressed interest” in assistance from the US on the matter.

He highlighted the military aid that the US has already begun delivering to Israel since the war’s outbreak.

Kirby appeared unfazed by the prospect of asking Congress to support simultaneous massive US aid packages for both Ukraine and Israel.

“We are having active conversations with members of Congress from both sides of the aisle certainly about the need for fundamental funding for Ukraine and the likelihood that we’ll need supplemental funding for Israel,” he said.

An aerial picture shows the abandoned site of the weekend attack on the Supernova desert music Festival by Palestinian terrorists near Kibbutz Re’im in the Negev desert in southern Israel on October 10, 2023.(Jack GUEZ / AFP)

“We have existing authorities and we have existing appropriations to provide support in the immediate term, but it is entirely possible — if not likely — that we will have to go back to Congress for some additional funding to support Israel over a longer term and we are perfectly happy to have those conversations.”

Meanwhile, the US has also moved the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier into the eastern Mediterranean, closer to Israel. Kirby said Biden made this decision to reassure US allies in the region of Washington’s continued engagement and also to deter any adversary from trying to escalate the conflict with Israel.

Asked whether the Biden administration’s effort to broker a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia had fallen off the agenda, Kirby acknowledged that the Hamas attack derailed the effort, “but we’re not abandoning it.”

He admitted that the weekend’s events changed the focus in Jerusalem and that Washington is now primarily concerned with ensuring that Israel has the means to defend itself.

Despite the unprecedented escalation, Kirby said the Biden administration continues to “believe in the promise of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

“We recognize that right now, the immediate focus needs to be on helping Israel respond to these attacks… But that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop believing in the viability of a two-state solution or trying to engage the leadership on all sides toward that end,” he said.

The White House spokesperson became a familiar face for many Israelis in recent days after a clip of him breaking down while talking about the human toll of the Hamas attack during a CNN interview went viral.

In his Tuesday phone call with Biden, Netanyahu made a point of bringing up how Kirby’s reaction “deeply moved” Israelis and “represented the depth of the commitment that… your administration has and that the American people have for Israel.”

Asked about the emotional moment he had on CNN, Kirby said he saw harrowing photos of Hamas’s victims for the first shortly before the interview. “Nobody had asked me about it before, and I had done a million interviews. But then he asked that question, and it just came crashing down on me like a ton of bricks, and I never had that happen before.”

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