John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council of the White House, balked at a reporter’s question at a Jan. 4 press briefing about “disproportionate” civilian casualties in Gaza.
“If an estimated 22,000 people have died, and you’re saying that Hamas still has a significant presence in Gaza, aren’t you essentially saying that this campaign is not effective?” the reporter asked.
“That’s not what I’m saying at all. First of all, we’re not chipping in from the sidelines here and giving them a report card on all their operations,” he said. “You can still be effective against the leadership of an organization and still have many members of the organization survive.”
“I don’t see the dissonance there,” he said.
Kirby added that “zero” is the right number of civilian casualties. “We want to see them do more to reduce the impact on the civilian population and to protect innocent lives,” he said. “I mean, we don’t want to see a single more civilian killed here.”
The reporter asked Kirby—who has reportedly drawn the ire of Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, for overshadowing her including on domestic areas—at what point Washington would say Israel’s strategy isn’t working.
Kirby, who has developed a reputation for being fair to Israel and whom the Israeli Embassy invited to light a candle on Chanukah, told the reporter that Israel has to make its own military decisions.
“They believe that they still have a viable threat by Hamas, that the Israeli people are still under a threat by Hamas—an organization that has vowed to do Oct. 7 over and over and over again, that doesn’t believe that Israel should exist as a nation,” he said.
“Is it just an honor system that the U.S. will take Israel at its word that it is not breaking any war crimes?” another reporter asked.
“We continue to talk to our Israeli counterparts about, again, the manner in which they’re conducting military operations, with the foremost in mind the need to protect innocent civilian life,” Kirby said. “As I have said before, we have seen them act in ways that demonstrate that they are making an effort. That doesn’t mean that more can’t be done or more shouldn’t be done.”
“I am not aware of any kind of formal assessment being done by the United States government to analyze the compliance with international law by our partner Israel,” he added.
Before asking a question, Jake Turx, senior White House correspondent for Ami Magazine, noted that Kfir Bibas, “the youngest hostage being held captive in Gaza,” turned one in captivity the prior day. He wished Bibas a happy birthday and said that everyone is praying for the toddler, in both Hebrew and English.
To Turx’s question about Hamas weapons in United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East sites, Kirby referred questions to the United Nations. UNRWA does a lot of good work in the area “and they’re doing it in harm’s way,” he said.
“It’s not some state secret here that Hamas hides itself in hospitals and schools and digs tunnels under residential complexes and neighborhoods,” he added. “This is what the Israelis are up against, a group that absolutely doesn’t abide by the laws of war and has no compunction about putting civilian lives in greater danger.”