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NSC spokesman John Kirby says more U.S. military support is heading to Israel


We are now on Day 4 of fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas militants. Israel appears poised for a ground invasion of Gaza, a response to the unprecedented attack on Israel by Hamas this past Saturday. Three hundred thousand Israeli military reservists have been called up. And today at the White House, President Biden pledged America's unequivocal support for Israel.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: So in this moment, we must be crystal clear. We stand with Israel. We stand with Israel.

KELLY: Well, John Kirby is the president's spokesman on the National Security Council. He joins us now from the White House. John Kirby, hi there. Welcome back.

JOHN KIRBY: Thank you, Mary Louise. Good to be with you.

KELLY: Well, so we just heard the president say very firmly, we stand with Israel. I will note the U.S. is moving ships into the Mediterranean. The U.S. has shipped military equipment to Israel. How does the U.S. send a message of support without ratcheting up tensions, without contributing to an escalation?

KIRBY: Right now the focus is - I mean, look, the party that escalated here was Hamas. So the thing we really need - the message we really need to send to the Israeli people is, as the president did, we support you. And we can't - not just in rhetoric. It's got to be in deed. And we are already - there's an initial tranche of military support heading to Israel as we speak. There will be more in coming days, of course. You talked about the carrier strike group. Moving that into the eastern Med we hope will have a strong deterrent message for any other actor, whether that's a terrorist group or a nation-state that has hostile feelings towards Israel, to deter them from getting involved. So some of this is hardware. It's action, not just word, but also, we have offered expertise in hostage recovery...

KELLY: Yeah.

KIRBY: ...In case the Israelis might want that.

KELLY: And I'm going to get to hostages in a second. But let me ask this first. Understanding that Israel can, will, must defend itself, what is the U.S. assessment so far of how Israel has carried out retaliatory strikes in Gaza?

KIRBY: They have certainly been going at these targets aggressively. We expected that they would. They have made it clear that they would, and they have.

KELLY: Palestinian officials say something like 800 people...

KIRBY: They have been...

KELLY: ...And counting have been killed.

KIRBY: They have been aggressive. Look, we don't want to see any innocent civilian life taken - none. And all too sadly now, the death toll in Israel is now over a thousand, and it's just brutal. We don't want to see any civilian life lost or any civilians harmed. And that is why the president made it clear also when he gave his speech that, look, we share a lot of the same values and interests with Israel. And one of those is a respect for law, a respect for the law of war specifically. And we know that that's an important thing for the Israeli people as well.

KELLY: Yeah. Well, and to stay with that a second - respect for the law of war. Israel has cut off food, water, electricity to Gaza. The International Criminal Court defines a war crime as intentionally using starvation of civilians, willfully impeding relief supplies, as provided for under the Geneva Convention. So my question again - what's the U.S. assessment of whether the response is appropriate?

KIRBY: Right. Right. And right now we know that - Mary Louise, that they were going to be aggressive in these early - the early days, and they have been. And we are doing everything we can to help them defeat this terrorist threat and to defend themselves, and that's what our focus is right now.


KIRBY: But obviously, we will stay in touch with Israeli counterparts as this goes forward, as you might expect we would.

KELLY: What can you tell us about the hostages that Hamas has taken and has threatened to kill? Can you give us any update on numbers, nationality?

KIRBY: I don't want to get into too much numbers - of the numbers. We have a rough sense, but it's a small number of Americans - a very small number of Americans that we know of...

KELLY: So Americans who are alive but are in Hamas...

KIRBY: That we believe are in...

KELLY: ...Captivity.

KIRBY: That are being - yeah, that are being held hostage by Hamas. There's also a larger number of Americans that are just unaccounted for. Now, some of them could turn up to be in the hostage pool. We just don't know. So we're trying to get as much information as we can. You know, it's easily in the dozens - multiple dozens that we believe Hamas has taken hostage. And we believe they are a cross-section of not just Israelis, but, of course, there's some Americans. And we have every reason to suspect that there are other foreign nationals that have been taken hostage. It's not like Hamas cared much about who they were ripping out of their homes and off the street.

KELLY: Yeah.

KIRBY: And so we're trying to get more information about that.

KELLY: The number we're seeing is somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 hostages. Does that sound more or less in line with what you've got?

KIRBY: I think, you know, in the main, that's about the range. I want to be very careful here, though, because the numbers are - we don't have a firm fingertip feel...


KIRBY: ...For exactly how many. That's why I said multiple dozens.

KELLY: Understood. I want to play you one more thing that we heard President Biden say today. This was a warning.


BIDEN: To any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of this situation, I have one word - don't.

KELLY: John Kirby, who is that warning intended for?

KIRBY: That is intended for any group or organization, terrorist group and any nation-state who has hostility borne towards Israel and might think about using this as an opportunity to take advantage, as the president said. So Hezbollah, Iran - those are two prime candidates in the category that the president was speaking about.

KELLY: And when he says, I have one word - don't - don't or else what? What are the consequences?

KIRBY: I think we - a little ambiguity is probably not a bad thing right now. As you know, we have robust military capabilities in the region, and we have plussed them up. In recent weeks, we have increased our military presence in the Gulf specifically, and now we have moved a carrier strike group into the eastern Med to provide additional options. We have a very robust military presence and capability to protect and defend our national security interests against actors who might want to try to take advantage of this.

KELLY: Stay with Iran a moment. We had your colleague, the deputy national security adviser, Jon Finer, on NPR yesterday. He said Iran is broadly complicit - his words - broadly complicit in the Hamas attack because of its past financial and military support to Hamas. But he said we've got no new information about Iran's direct involvement in the attack on Israel over the weekend. Does that hold? Can you elaborate?

KIRBY: No, that holds. That's where we are right now. We are still looking through the evidence. We're looking through the intelligence. Our Israeli counterparts are doing the same thing, and they haven't found it, either. So it's not like we're just passively letting it wash over us. We are actively looking at the intelligence picture to see if there's some specific linkage by the Iranian regime to these particular attacks. And we just haven't seen it yet, but he's right. In terms of complicity, look, we're not turning a blind eye here. I mean, they have supported Hamas now for many, many years - tools, capabilities, resourcing, financing, training. And that - so what Hamas is today very much goes back to the support that they got from Iran.

KELLY: That is John Kirby, spokesperson for the National Security Council, speaking with us from the White House. Thanks for your time today.

KIRBY: Yes, ma'am. Thank you.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Tinbete Ermyas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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