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Reporters repeatedly ask State Department, White House if Israel abiding by laws of war

“That’s what war is. It’s brutal. It’s ugly. It’s messy,” said John Kirby, a National Security Council spokesman and retired U.S. Navy rear admiral.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks to reporters at the White House, Oct. 3, 2023. Photo by Oliver Contreras/White House.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks to reporters at the White House, Oct. 3, 2023. Photo by Oliver Contreras/White House.

Reporters devoted significant time during both the White House and the U.S. State Department press briefings on Thursday asking the Biden administration—often in heated exchanges—whether it believes that Israel is committing war crimes.

Raquel Krähenbühl, Washington bureau chief for the Brazilian network TV Globo, noted during the White House briefing that both U.S. President Joe Biden and John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, have said that more innocent people will die, and this is the price of war.

“Don’t you think this is insensitive? There have been very harsh criticism about it,” Krähenbühl said. “For example, the Council on American-Islamic Relations said it was deeply disturbed and called on the president to apologize. Would the president apologize?”

Kirby said Biden would not. “What’s harsh is the way Hamas is using people as human shields. What’s harsh is taking a couple of hundred hostages and leaving families anxious, waiting and worrying to figure out where their loved ones are,” Kirby said. “What’s harsh is dropping in on a music festival and slaughtering a bunch of young people just trying to enjoy an afternoon. I can go on and on. That’s what’s harsh.”

Being honest about civilian casualties and noting that there will be more “is being honest because that’s what war is. It’s brutal. It’s ugly. It’s messy. I’ve said that before,” said Kirby, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral. “The president also said that yesterday. Doesn’t mean we have to like it, and it doesn’t mean that we’re dismissing any one of those casualties. Each and everyone is a tragedy in its own right, and each and everyone we should try to prevent.” 

In Foggy Bottom, Matthew Miller, the State Department spokesman, also fielded questions along the same lines.

“Just to follow up on what the president said that this is war and in war people die and so on and all these things. What would be acceptable for the United States? I mean, do you have a figure that can be acceptable—that would push the government of the United States, that has a great deal of leverage on Israel, to say okay, the time has come for a ceasefire?” asked Said Arikat, Washington bureau chief of Al-Quds.

“We do not want to see one innocent civilian die. We don’t want to see an innocent civilian die in Israel; we don’t want to see an innocent civilian die in Gaza,” Miller said. “The fact is Hamas continues to use innocent civilians as human shields. Israel is conducting what in our assessment are legitimate military operations to try to take out the terrorist group that attacked them on October 7th.”

“They need to do so in a way that minimizes civilian harm, and at the same time, we need to do everything we can to get humanitarian assistance in,” Miller added.

“So do you believe that Israel is following the laws of war in this case?” Arikat said. “I mean, I’m looking at—that entire neighborhoods were completely wiped out.”

Miller said he couldn’t offer an assessment from the podium of individual strikes.

“Our expectation is that they need to follow the laws of war and they need to follow international humanitarian law, and that means not deliberately targeting civilians, which we do not believe they are doing,” Miller said. “It means operating in a way that minimizes civilian harm when they are trying to take out legitimate terrorist organizations.”

Matt Lee, diplomatic writer for the Associated Press, joined the fray. “You oppose collective punishment, and you say that that’s not what you’re seeing here, and yet numerous people have said that that is what’s going on,” Lee said.

“That is not an assessment that we have made. Obviously, a number of civilians have died in this conflict, and we want to see civilians protected,” Miller said.

‘We are in the middle of this conflict’

“Do you think that the Israelis are complying with the international laws or rules of war?” Lee asked. “I am not trying to minimize what happened on Oct. 7th at all.  But since you guys have made it a priority to tell the Israelis that it’s important for democracies to respect these laws and rules, do you think that they are so far?”

“As is consistent with what the secretary said on Friday, we have not made any kind of formal assessment,” Miller said. “There are a number of strikes that happened. You would have to look at the facts and the circumstances of every one of those strikes.”

“It is our assessment they are not deliberately targeting civilians. They’re warning civilians to get out of harm’s way when they’re taking a military strike,” Miller said. “It is a difficult situation because of the point I made about Hamas using its human shields.”

Miller repeated that there had been no formal assessment.

“I’m not asking for a formal assessment, but it sounds to me as though you’re saying that you guys believe that the Israelis are operating within the rules of war and international humanitarian law,” Lee said.

“We are in the middle of this conflict. We have not made those determinations. What I can say is in our conversations with the Israeli government, they have told us they are trying to minimize civilian harm,” Miller said. “We have impressed upon them the need to do that.”

“And you believe that they are doing that?” Lee asked. 

“We do,” Miller said.

Miller was asked several times why Washington made a quicker determination that Russia was not abiding by the rules of war, and it could not say if Israel was doing so.

“We have not seen Russians warning civilians to vacate apartment buildings when they launch them. We’ve seen evidence in Russia’s case of deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure,” Miller said.

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