President Joe Biden said Tuesday that “we have Israel’s back,” as Washington attempts to defuse tensions in the Middle East after a stunning terrorist attack by Hamas militants. More than 1,000 people, including at least 14 Americans, have been killed by Hamas militants who stormed over the border Saturday, killing and kidnapping civilians and security forces.
VOA Ukrainian Service’s Iuliia Iarmolenko spoke Tuesday to John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, shortly before Biden addressed the nation in a televised address.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: Can you lay out a roadmap of how the United States is planning to address the situation in Israel? Are you preparing for a long haul or possible regional work?
John Kirby: Well, how long this conflict goes on is really something for the Israelis to speak to, not the United States. What I think you’ll hear from the president today is that we stand solidly and strongly behind Israel, their right to defend themselves, to live in peace and security, to go after these Hamas terrorists that perpetrated this barbaric violence on Israeli citizens, just innocent people going about their lives, and that we’re going to, we’re going to continue to support their needs. There’s already one tranche of military aid on its way to Israel, it should be there soon. I suspect there’ll be others. The president will talk about that in his remarks. We also are mindful that there’s a hostage situation going on. And this is not like any typical hostage situation; it’s also a war zone. So, that’s going to complicate recovery efforts, and the president will talk about how we are offering our support, our advice and counsel. We have terrific hostage recovery experts here in the United States, and we’re willing to chip in that expertise should the Israelis find that required.
VOA: The administration has been pretty cautious in describing Iran’s role in the Hamas attack on Israel. Why? And any signs of possible Russia’s involvement?
Kirby: Make no mistake, Iran has a degree of complicity here. They’ve been supporting Hamas for many years: training, tools, weapons, capabilities. So, nobody’s walking away from the fact that Hamas wouldn’t be able to function if it wasn’t for the support that they get from Iran. What we have said and our Israeli counterparts have said as well is we just haven’t seen any direct evidence that they were involved specifically in these attacks. But we’re going to keep looking at this. We’ll keep monitoring the intelligence picture and the evidence, and we’ll see where it takes us.
VOA: How about Russia’s involvement?
Kirby: We see no indication that Russia was at all directly involved in these attacks either.
VOA: There are reports that President Biden did not urge Prime Minister Netanyahu to exercise restraint in Gaza in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack. Will the administration communicate any concerns or guidance before Israel’s anticipated ground operation in Gaza?
Kirby: Well, again, without talking to Israeli military operations — that’s for them to speak to — I think we all recognize given the threats that they faced and the violence that they’ve been dealing with in the last few hours, that they have to respond aggressively against Hamas, and you’re seeing that play out. They are doing that. Nobody wants to see innocent civilians killed or hurt. Sadly, there’s been too much of that already. Almost 1,000 Israelis now butchered and slaughtered, raped and tortured in front of their family members, and nobody wants to see innocent life taken. And there, as I said, there’s been too much of it.
One of the great things about our relationship with Israel is that we’re two vibrant democracies and we mutually believe in things like the respect for innocent life and the rule of law. And we’re always stronger together, our two countries, when we show that to the world, that we do respect innocent life and that we do respect not only the rule of law, but the law of war. So, you know, we’ll obviously, we’ll again provide the kind of support that we need to provide to Israel, and we will always stand up for the opposite example of what Hamas is doing, which is not only no respect for life, but the wanton, indiscriminate, murder, butchery of human life.
VOA: But is it going to be communicated to Prime Minister Netanyahu?
Kirby: We, again, this is something that we obviously share with Israel, and you know, these are, these are two countries, two partners that certainly have very open lines of communication, and this is one of the great things about our relationship.
VOA: On Ukraine, you said yesterday the administration wants to make sure that there is no gap in assistance to Ukraine, not even a day. Are you confident that that’s going to be the case? Given all the situation that transpired in Israel? Is the administration considering pairing Ukraine and Israel aid requests for faster approval in Congress?
Kirby: It is important that Ukraine continue to get the aid that it needs. They are involved in still a counteroffensive in facing Russian aggression on their own soil. And you’re right, we don’t want to see a single lapse. That’s why we’re going to continue to work with Congress to see if we can get supplemental funding. We’ve got enough right now to get us through some time. But as I said the other day, it’s not indefinite, and that’s the reason we made a supplemental request. How those conversations with Congress play out, what that looks like, I can’t say at this point. Both Ukraine and Israel are important. Both need American military assistance, and it’s important to our national security interest, let alone theirs, but ours too, that they get that assistance. So, we’re going to continue to work with Congress.
VOA: But is there communication to put these two funding requests together for their faster approval?
Kirby: Yeah, I’m not going to talk about the process here of the conversations that we’re having with Congress. Both countries need U.S. military assistance in terms of weapons and capabilities. Both are under assault. Both have every right to defend themselves and their citizens. And in that defense, our national security interests are actually benefited. We’re going to continue to have these conversations with Congress. How that’s going to play out I just can’t say, and I wouldn’t talk about the specifics of the conversations that we’re having.
VOA: One more question on that. Does the administration consider requesting bigger funding for Ukraine, so-called “one and done” aid package till the next election in the United States?
Kirby: Again, I don’t want to get into the conversations that we’re having with members of Congress. We already submitted a supplemental for the first quarter of the fiscal year here this fall. We believe that that supplemental request was adequate to the task. We urge Congress to pass that supplemental funding, but as for what other conversations might be happening, I’d really rather not get into that.
VOA: OK. And you said yesterday also that Ukraine has some weeks of good weather to be productive and efficient with their counteroffensive. Isn’t this a good time to provide ATACMS [missiles] for Ukraine?
Kirby: Again, ATACMS are not off the table. We are having continued reviews of the additional capabilities that Ukraine needs. I’m not in a position to announce anything with respect to ATACMS. I would just tell you that as the war has evolved and changed, the capabilities that we have provided Ukraine has evolved and changed, and I would expect that that change will continue.
VOA: Including ATACMS?
Kirby: I’m just going to leave it there.
VOA: OK. And just let me ask this: You said yesterday that all energy right now is on helping Israel to defend itself. Do you think that there is a possibility that actors like Russia and China might use this opportunity when all eyes are on Israel to their advantage, and how to prevent that?
Kirby: It is certainly possible that other nations, other actors that are hostile to Israel could try to take advantage of the situation. And that is one of the reasons that the president, as commander-in-chief, ordered a carrier strike group into the eastern Mediterranean to send a strong signal to anybody who might be thinking that this is a good opportunity to get involved and try to broaden this conflict beyond just Hamas, and that they are to rethink that plan. They ought to rethink those considerations. So I can’t speak to anything specific with respect to Russia or China’s involvement one way or the other, but we have made it clear, and we’ll continue to make it clear that we take our national security interests in the region very, very seriously.