THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Hello everyone. Welcome to this Washington Foreign Press Center virtual briefing. My name is Jake Goshert. I’m moderating today’s briefing. Joining us is the National Security Council’s Coordinator of Strategic Communication John Kirby. A quick reminder of the ground rules today – the briefing is on the record, and after some of – brief opening remarks, we will open the session up for Q&A.
But with that, I’m just going to turn it over to John Kirby so we can have his opening remarks.
MR KIRBY: Thank you very much. I’ll keep this very brief; I know we have a lot of folks on the line here and not a lot of time.
Very busy few days here with respect to the Israel-Hamas conflict. We started off going into the weekend with the very good news that we got two American hostages out and will be reuniting with their families here. That’s terrific news. But we’re not resting on laurels; we know we have additional Americans that are being held hostage, as well as dozens more from other countries and obviously from Israel. So we’re going to stay lashed up with our partners to do everything we can to get hostages out. They should be released immediately; there’s no reason for them to be held in the first place.
The President had a very active weekend. He was briefed throughout the course of the weekend by his national security team. And of course, as I think you saw, he had an opportunity to reconnect with Prime Minister Netanyahu, get an update from the prime minister on how things were going on the ground, as well as to talk, as he has always, about the continued need for humanitarian assistance to get in, and certainly the – our hostage recovery efforts.
He also had a chance to speak with the pope, and of course he had a chance to speak with some of our key European allies, the leaders of – I’m sorry, European and Western Hemisphere allies, the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and of course the United Kingdom.
On humanitarian assistance, I think you’ve all seen the reports that two convoys of humanitarian assistance got in over the weekend. That was good news. But we know there’s an awful lot more work to do; it’s not enough. Another convoy is being processed as we speak. Hopefully that will be able to get in and get delivered to the people of Gaza today, and then we’re working very, very hard to keep that flow going, to keep a sustainable level of humanitarian assistance getting into Gaza.
Again, we know the needs are acute; we know they are significant; we know that two convoys of trucks is not enough. We are working on this very, very hard with our partners, and of course with the UN, to make sure that the people of Gaza don’t suffer any more than they already have. So again, we’re still that – still doing that coordination.
We are also still working hard with partners on the ground to see what we can do to get civilians out. It’s great that we’re getting humanitarian assistance in. We also want to provide a vehicle of safe passage for innocent civilians who want to leave Gaza to get out, and that includes, of course, several hundred American citizens that we’re tracking that want to leave. That safe passage has not been finalized, but again, we’re working very, very hard at that.
I can also reaffirm that, over the course of the weekend, additional security assistance continued to flow into Israel. It’s almost on a near-daily basis, and every day is a little bit different, obviously, based on the needs of the Israelis. And we’re being careful not to quantify or get into too much detail about what they’re getting – for their own operational security purposes, of course. But that security assistance continues to flow.
And then lastly – and I think you saw from the Secretary of Defense – we have taken additional steps over the course of the weekend to increase our force posture and our readiness in the region to deter any other actor from attempting to widen this conflict, or – and certainly to continue to protect and defend our troops on the ground, and our own national security interests in the region. The Secretary of Defense announced that the USS Eisenhower will be moving through the Mediterranean and into the central command area of responsibility, that is to the Gulf region. He has added additional air defense systems, including a Patriot battery and some theater air defense batteries into the region. And of course, we continue to bolster the naval presence now by ordering the Bataan – the USS Bataan amphibious ready group with their embarked Marines, will now be heading into the eastern Mediterranean out of the central command, the Middle East region. So that will be coming in future days here. But it’s all part and parcel of making sure we got the right force posture, making sure we’re sending a strong deterrent signal to any other actors in the region that might want to widen the conflict.
So with that, I’ll take questions.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you. And a reminder for our journalists joining us today, please make sure you rename yourself to your name, your outlet, and your country. You can ask a question by raising your virtual hand. I’m going to start with Nathan Guttman, from Israeli Public Television. Nathan, I’m going to ask you to unmute yourself, turn your camera on if possible, and ask your question.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Thanks for taking my call. I’d like to know if there was any request or any expectation of the United States that Israel delay, or postpone, or rethink its ground operation in order to improve the chances of releasing both American and Israeli hostages being held in Gaza, and if this is part of the discussion that is going on between the administration and Israel right now.
MR KIRBY: Yeah, you’re no doubt reacting to – or asking questions based on some press reporting that’s out there. Look, I would just tell you that, from the very beginning, in the early hours of this conflict, we have been in touch with our Israeli counterparts – as we would anyway, but certainly in light of the conflict and the violence that Hamas visited upon the Israeli people, we were in early in touch with our Israeli counterparts and trying to get a sense from them – and the President did this too when we went to Tel Aviv last week – try to get a sense from them about their intentions, their strategy, their aims, trying to get a sense of their answers to the tough questions that any military needs to ask itself before it conducts any major operations.
I’m not going to get ahead of the Israelis and what they will or won’t do. That would be completely inappropriate. But of course, we are talking to them about all the kinds of consequences, third – second- and third-order effects that come from making decisions on the battlefield and what that means, and we’ll continue to do that. But – and this is an important “but” – the Israeli Defense Forces, they will make the decisions. They and their political leadership will make the decisions about what they do, when they do it, and how they do it. But obviously we’re curious as to understand as best we can the how and the aims and the strategy that they’re putting into the effort. And that – those conversations will absolutely continue.
MODERATOR: Okay. Next we will move on to Amr Hassan Sayed from Al Jazeera. Amr, if I’m pronouncing that correctly, please unmute yourself, turn your camera on if you can, and ask your question.
QUESTION: Yes, hello. My name is Amr Hassan. Thank you so much for taking my question. I would like to ask John Kirby about this – the Council on Foreign Relations accused the Biden administration of being complicit in the genocide that is committed right now in Gaza. How do you prove that the 5,000 so far killed in Gaza and more than 15,000 injured, along with 40,000 displaced, were Hamas militants?
MR KIRBY: So let me just start – I’ve not seen the Council on Foreign Relations statement, so I’ll have my staff go take a look at that. But let me just make it crystal clear the number of appropriate civilian causalities in this or any other conflict is zero. We don’t want to see any innocent lives hurt; we don’t want to see any innocent people injured or cast from their homes. Of course, we don’t want to see any civilian causalities, and that’s one of the reasons why we have continued to work very closely with our Israeli counterparts about – talking to them about their aims, their strategy, their intentions, the manner in which they are conducting operations. And again, those conversations will absolutely continue.
One of the things that separates Israel and the United States – vital democracies – from groups like Hamas is that we actually do make every attempt to abide by the laws of war, and we actually do try to minimize civilian causalities. Hamas, on the other hand, because they’re nothing but a terrorist group – they’re certainly not a responsible governing power – they could care less about the laws of war and they could care less about the people of Gaza, using them as human shields, tunneling under their homes, headquartering themselves in hospitals and schools, encouraging them to stay home right there in northern Gaza and putting them literally in harm’s way because they don’t care. That’s the big difference between Israel and the United States, and groups like Hamas. So there’s a big difference in approach here.
MODERATOR: Okay. Next we’re going to go to Johanna Roth from Zeit Online in Germany. Johanna, if you can unmute yourself.
QUESTION: Thank you. I would like to ask – you emphasized that the IDF is making their own decisions. Nonetheless, could you give us an estimate on the probability that a ground offense won’t happen for quite a while, with negotiations taking place regarding the hostages? And how would you explain that it seems like it is postponed from – on a day-to-day basis? Maybe you could speak to that a little. Thank you.
MR KIRBY: I’m afraid I can’t, ma’am. Those are questions that only the Israeli Defense Forces can answer. I will not speak for their military operations and I’m certainly not going to speak for any potential military operations. As far as I know, they have not announced any particular intention on any particular timeline, and I think it’s important that we respect their operational security, so I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to help you out with that.
MODERATOR: Next we’ll go to Mariana Sanches from BBC News. Mariana, please unmute yourself and turn your camera on, if possible. We can’t hear you Mariana. Can you unmute yourself? I still can’t hear you, Mariana. We’ll come back to you.
Let’s move on to Alex from Azerbaijan. Alex.
QUESTION: Hey, Jake, thank you so much for doing this, and Admiral, thanks for your time. A quick question on hostages issues. Critics, as you know, say that Hamas knows a ground invasion is imminent, and releasing American hostages two by two, if you want, is an effort to buy some time. Is there any validity to those criticism in the view of the White House?
And secondly, if you have any assessment that shows a threat from Iran is evolving.
And finally, slightly unrelated but important news of the day, does the White House have any reaction to Iran hosting five-nation meeting today on Armenia-Azerbaijan which includes also, obviously, Russian and Turkish foreign ministers? Thank you so much.
MR KIRBY: I’ll take your question about them hosting a five-nation conference on Azerbaijan. I wasn’t tracking that, so before I just go spouting off and saying something stupid, I’ll go find out what the answer is to that.
On the question about hostages, I certainly can’t speak for Hamas’s motivations. This is out of the playbook, right? They’ve done this hostage-taking thing before to either gain leverage or simply to continue to terrorize a population or both. We have said clearly – we’ll say it again today – they need to release every single hostage they are holding. They all should be released and back with their families where they belong.
Now, we’re glad we got two Americans out on Friday, and we’re still going to continue to work to try to get the remaining Americans out. We’re doing that through consultations and conversations that we’re having with partners in the region. That’s how we got those two, and we hope that we can follow that up with more success in coming days.
But again, what the motivation is in terms of them trying to eke it out over time to delay a potential ground invasion, I can’t verify that. And I certainly, as I said earlier, won’t speak for the Israelis and what they will or won’t do on the ground. All I can tell you is that we have been working – and I don’t mean – and this is not an exaggeration – we’ve been working by the hour since the moment we found out that Americans were being held hostage to get them released. That work continues. And again, certainly grateful that we got two, but we want to get the rest as well.
And then on the Iran threat, I would just say that we have never been blind to Iran’s destabilizing behaviors and the threats they pose in the region since coming into office. That’s why we have added additional sanctions regimes – 40 of them since we came into office, 30 in just the last year alone. That’s why we bolstered our military presence in the region. Even before the conflict built with Hamas, we had bolstered naval and air capabilities in the Gulf region, and it’s why we are working so much closer in a more integrated way with our allies and partners in the region, trying to pursue, for instance, a regional integrated air and missile defense. What do you think that’s about? It’s all about Iran.
So again, we have been very focused on what Iran is doing. We are not blind to the fact that they continue to support groups like Hamas and Hizballah and these militia groups in Iraq and in Syria that have been recently, over the course of the last weekend, attacking some of our facilities and our troops as well as our diplomats. We are certainly mindful of the impact that they have and the encouragement that they give to these groups. So again, without getting ahead of where we are right now and what ways in which we might continue to hold Iran accountable, I can tell you that we are certainly not blind at all to what Iran is doing.
MODERATOR: Okay. Next we will move to Nadia Bilbassy from Al Arabiya. Nadia, please unmute yourself.
QUESTION: Thank you. Good morning, John. The Roman Catholic church – Roman Orthodox, rather – church in Gaza and al-Omari Mosque, one of the oldest in Gaza City, have been hit and scores of people were killed, actually. Also, the UN is saying that 50 percent of homes in Gaza have been destroyed. That means around 1 million people cannot go back to their homes. You just said now that you don’t want to see civilian casualties, but does it look to you that Israel is abiding by international law as we see the picture that emerging from Gaza now? And are they listening to you? Is this something that you can accept so far in terms of casualties and destruction in Gaza as a collateral damage? Thank you.
MR KIRBY: Nadia, again, as we’ve said, we’re not going to react to every event that happens on the ground, particularly since we’re not there. We have been very clear with our Israeli counterparts that we obviously want to see them prosecute operations in a way consistent with the laws of war and consistent with due respect to innocent life. And they have assured us that they also feel the same way. We’re not going to – again, we’re not going to react to every incident, but we’ve been very clear about how much we – and what we will and will – we do and will continue to respect innocent life, and certainly the property of civilians in Gaza.
Again, I want to remind that Hamas is deliberately placing these civilians at greater risk. They are the ones digging tunnels under their homes. They are the ones that are setting up command and control facilities in schools and residential buildings and in hospitals. They are – they have no regard for the people of Gaza, and we know that the people of Gaza don’t – aren’t adequately represented by Hamas, that the vast, vast majority do not share Hamas’s ideology or their penchant for violence.
So again, we’re going to keep working with our Israeli counterparts going forward to make sure that we have a keen sense of their plans, their strategy, their intentions, and again, as Secretary Blinken said yesterday, a good sense of how they’re conducting operations.
MODERATOR: Okay. Next we are moving to – excuse me, lost my place here – Yuna from Channel 12.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. Hi and thank you for this. Thank you, Kirby. We’re hearing reports about negotiations between Israelis and Qatar on releasing more hostages. Is this something that is done directly? Is this something that is done throughout the U.S.? What can you tell us about these efforts? We know that Qatar was involved in the release of the two hostages, the American hostages, but if you have any more details on this.
MR KIRBY: I can’t and I won’t. The less said about the effort to get hostages out, the better chances we have of getting more hostages out. And I think everybody can understand that these are sensitive discussions and I would be loath to put anything into the public domain that could make it harder for us to do this going forward. So all I can tell you is that we continue to consult and have conversation with partners in the region to try to get more hostages out, and that work continues. Even as we’re speaking here, I know for a fact that that work continues.
MODERATOR: And next we’ll go to Sara Canals from Spain. Sara, please unmute yourself.
QUESTION: Hello. Yes, thanks for this briefing. Are you listening to me?
MR KIRBY: Yes. I can hear you.
QUESTION: Yes, okay, thank you so much. I just wanted to follow up on the potential imminent ground invasion. First of all, you mentioned that you’re talking to Israel about all sorts of of consequences. If you could tell us exactly what are these consequences, and also, what kind of feedback are you getting from the Israeli Government?
MR KIRBY: Look, broadly speaking, whenever you conduct a major military operation – and again, I’m going to say this at the risk of being redundant with you – I’m not going to speculate about what the Israelis will or won’t do. That is for them and only them to speak to.
But whenever you conduct major military operations, you have to consider what we call branches and sequels. In other words, you’ve got to plan, and you have to think about the possibility that circumstances beyond your control will alter your planning, will force you to readjust. That’s called branches and sequels. The branches are other alternatives to conduct operations that maybe not be consistent with your operation plan. And a sequel is thinking about the day after and the day after and the day after – in other words, what comes next and next and next.
Branches and sequel – that’s a big part of planning, and that’s certainly some of the things that we’re talking to the Israelis about, asking them questions about their thinking on those branches and sequels, what things do they think could go wrong and how are they planning to address that. And again, we have these conversations with them all the time, certainly in a more concentrated fashion since October 7th because of the stakes. But it’s very much a part of professional military-to-military relations. And that’s what we’re doing now.
As for what those specific branches and sequels are, again, I’m not going to talk about Israeli planning for operations. That would be grossly inappropriate for us to do here from the White House. This is really for the IDF to think about and to talk about only when they’re prepared to talk about it. So I think I need to leave it there.
MODERATOR: And next we’ll move to Hiba Nasr from Asharq. Hiba, if you could unmute yourself.
QUESTION: Yes. Thanks, Jake. Thank you, John, for doing this. The Israelis, John, are saying that Hamas is using civilians as a human shield and they are using hospitals and schools. You said many times yet that you don’t want to see civilian casualties. Now – and you are calling on Israel to abide by the international law. If Hamas is using, let’s say, the schools and the hospitals, would that make it a legitimate target by the international law?
MR KIRBY: Would what be a legitimate target? I don’t think I understood the question. Are you there?
QUESTION: Yes. Yeah. Can you hear me now, John?
MR KIRBY: Yeah, I didn’t – I don’t think I quite understood the question. Would what be a legitimate target?
QUESTION: Yeah, I will repeat it. I will – yeah, I mean, when the Israeli – the Israelis are saying that Hamas is using the schools and the hospitals sometimes. So if this – and I mean, I’m not on the ground. But the question is: Would this make it a legitimate target by international law if they – if Hamas is using – we know that civilians are there, are at the schools, are at the hospitals? What’s your position here?
MR KIRBY: It depends. Look, I’m not an international lawyer here, so I’m going to be careful. But a lot depends on the potential for civilian casualties as to whether you make that decision to go after a target or not. Something can be a legitimate target, but the laws of war and the respect for innocent civilian life may dictate not taking an action.
So it’s a hypothetical question that I’m ill-prepared to answer since I’m obviously not making the targeting decisions. But just speaking from my own military experience and what I’ve seen us do, I mean, there are – there were many times in Iraq and Afghanistan where we knew terrorists and the Taliban were sheltering in occupied residential buildings or mosques or using innocent civilians as human shields, and we made the decision not to target because you want to be respectful of human life.
So it really – it’s very situationally dependent, and it does matter on that calculus of whether or not a given strike is going to – the potential for that strike to cause civilian casualties. Again, what separates us from Hamas is we actually make – and I mean “we,” I mean, we and Israel – we try not to do that. And I wish I could tell you all, I really wish I could tell you all, that there are not going to be any more civilian casualties in this conflict, but I don’t think I can. And I think it would be irresponsible for me to avoid saying that, that there could be additional civilian casualties here. War is unpredictable. And you can – I can – again, I speak from experience. You try hard, you make every effort, you scour the intelligence, you do everything you can to minimize, and yet still in the conduct of operations it happens. It’s regrettable and it’s sickening, but it does happen.
And again, I just – I think what – again, what separates us from Hamas is that we make that effort; we try. They’re not even – for them, it’s not even a consideration. They don’t care. They don’t care about the people of Gaza. They simply care about killing Israelis. They just want Israel not to exist, and they’re happy to use the people in Gaza as human shields to try to protect themselves and their operations. That’s – I think that’s the best I can do on that.
MODERATOR: I believe that’s all the time we have today. I don’t know if you have any last thoughts you wanted to share with the group, sir?
MR KIRBY: No, thanks very much. I appreciate this opportunity to be with you all, and if this is worthwhile, please let us know. I’m happy to come on back anytime, either on Zoom or actually in the briefing room over there, to keep you all updated. Appreciate it.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. We love having you here. So that will end today’s briefing. Thank you all. Look for the transcript coming soon. Thank you.