Joe Biden

On-the-Record Press Gaggle by NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby

December 15, 2023

Via Teleconference

3:13 P.M. EST

MR. KIRBY: Hey, guys. It wouldn't be a Kirby gaggle if it started on time, so I do apologize for that, particularly on a Friday afternoon.

Real quickly, I think you may have been tracking this, but I do want to raise it, that yesterday, during his meetings in Israel, Jake welcomed Prime Minister Netanyahu's decision to open up the Kerem Shalom crossing for inspections. And he, of course, urged them to quickly make it available for the direct entry of trucks.

Before he left Israel today, Jake got the news by the government of Israel that they had made the decision to, in fact, open up Kerem Shalom for direct delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people in Gaza.

So this is a significant step forward. We're very, very grateful for this decision. I think it's going to make a big difference in the lives and livelihoods of people that are still suffering and in need of food, water, medicine, and fuel. And it's, of course, something we asked the Israelis to do. We're glad that they have moved in that direction.

And again, I'll leave it there.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you so much. We'll go to Aamer from AP for the first question.

Q: Hey, John, is Jake Sullivan headed elsewhere in the region this weekend, or coming back to Washington?

And then, secondly, the White House briefer yesterday said one possibility being pondered for security in Gaza is bringing back Palestinian Security Forces that had been driven out from their jobs by Gaza -- I'm sorry, from Gaza by Hamas, after the takeover nearly 20 years ago. I'm just wondering: How would that work, when the PA seems to have little support among the population, and Israel and -- what the Israelis are saying is that they want an open-ended security presence once the war ends? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Thanks, Aamer. On Jake's travel, I don't have additional stops to speak to at this time.

On your second question, I think, look, this all gets wrapped up into what we're trying to do in terms of looking at post-governance -- or post-conflict governance in Gaza. We don't have the answers to your questions, as valid as they are.

What we are trying to do is work with the range of our partners in the region, which obviously includes Israel but certainly the Palestinian Authority. One of the things that Jake talked about with Mahmoud Abbas was, in fact, governance possibilities.

So we don't know exactly what security services will look like for the people of Gaza post-conflict, but it is absolutely valid -- it's a valid question to ask. We're asking those questions ourselves. We're working with partners to see what this can look like.

As we've said in the past -- and Secretary Blinken is much more eloquent than me -- whatever post-conflict Gaza looks like, it can't look like it did on the 6th of October, with Hamas in control. And it has to be more representative of the aspirations of the Palestinian people. And, you know, that sounds like a throwaway line. It's not. Because one of their aspirations is to live in peace and have stability and have security and a measure of safety. And so, the security component of this very much has to be wrapped up and baked into it. We just aren't there yet. There aren't any final answers.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Next, we'll go to Steve Holland with Reuters.

Q: John, did Jake ask President Abbas if he'd be willing to take over Gaza if his organization has the strength to take over Gaza at some point in the future?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I don't want to get into the specific details of the conversation. And obviously, I wasn't in the room when they had that conversation.

All I can tell you, Steve, is that they absolutely talked about post-conflict Gaza and governance issues and, as it was in the readout, talking about a revamped and a revitalized Palestinian Authority that has the responsibility and accountability for how the future of the Palestinian people is managed and how we're looking after, again, their aspirations.

So, a broad range -- a broad discussion about the Palestinian Authority's role, what it should be, what it can be, but also what needs to be done to get the Palestinian Authority in a position where it is seen as more credible, more authentic, and more accountable.

Q: And the idea of Israel scaling back its high-intensity operations in Gaza, when do you want and expect that to happen?

MR. KIRBY: Well, as Jake said himself, I mean, we're not dictating terms to the Israelis. We did talk to them about what they're thinking in terms of transitioning from high-intensity to what we would consider lower-intensity military operations.

Look, we agree with the Israelis that this conflict could go on for months. But what Jake talked to them is about the importance of thinking about transitioning to a different phase here, where it's -- where the operations are more targeted, more precise, more surgical, really, in scope and scale. What that looks like on the calendar and how that transition is made is really going to be up to our Israeli counterparts to decide and to speak to.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Yes, sir.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Next, we'll go to Gabe from NBC.

Q: Hi there, John. In talking about a targeted, more

precise assault, the IDF just mistakenly -- it just said it mistakenly killed three hostages. What's the U.S.'s reaction to that? And how can the U.S. continue to say that Israel is trying to minimize civilian casualties here?

MR. KIRBY: Gabe, it's heartbreaking, it's tragic, this news coming out of Gaza today about these hostages being killed in the conduct of a raid.

I want to be careful here not to speak to too many specifics because we don't have perfect visibility on exactly how this operation unfolded and how this tragic mistake was made. But obviously, this is not an outcome that anybody wanted to see.

And, you know, the Prime Minister, Prime Minister Netanyahu, of course also conveyed very similar sentiments about the gravity of the loss here and how unbearable it is.

I think the Israelis will certainly take a look at this, and I'm sure they will do the forensics to try to figure out how they got -- how this happened. It's certainly the way we would approach a situation like this too; we'd want to know as many answers as we could.

So I want to -- you know, to your second question, I don't think that, you know, we can necessarily make some sort of broad judgment about the specific circumstances here and what that says about the ability for them to be more surgical and more precise.

I would add that, you know, when they went into north Gaza, they went in with a much smaller footprint, and they were able to conduct smaller-scale, smaller-unit operations than what they had originally planned to do. And we'll let them -- again, we'll let them do the forensics here and try to figure out what happened.

But right now -- just one more second, and then I promise I'll shut up. Right now, we're mourning with the families that are getting the worst possible news a family can get. And I think we need to keep them foremost in mind.

Q: And, John, one more quick follow-up. Has the President spoken with Prime Minister Netanyahu directly about the killing of these three hostages?

MR. KIRBY: He has not had a conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu about this incident. He has been briefed by his national security team about it.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Next, we'll go to Felicia with FT.

Q: Hi, John. Thank you. I'm wondering if you have any response to global shipping companies like Maersk halting travel through the Red Sea. And has there been any progress on the task force Jake and others have mentioned you're looking into setting up?

MR. KIRBY: I would let these companies speak for themselves, Felicia. They have to weigh the balance of risk and benefit of the transit of their ships all around the world.

Certainly, again, without speaking for Maersk, commercial traffic, transit in the Red Sea is more dangerous now than it was before because of these Houthi attacks on commercial shipping. That is why, to your second question, why we are working so hard to bolster and strengthen the existing combined maritime forces that were already established in the region.

And I think we'll have more to say about the specifics on that in coming days. I don't have an update for you now, but I think we'll have more to say, specifically about that maritime task force here, in certain days.

I would just add, finally, again: We continue to condemn in the strongest terms the threats and the acts that the Houthis are demonstrating here in terms of disrupting international flow of commerce, to inhibit freedom of navigation in international waters, and of course, to endanger the safety of the ships and the crews that are onboard these ships. It's absolutely unacceptable.

And we're going to continue to work, again, as I said, with a range of partners to do what we can to make more safe and more secure that free flow of commerce through a vital checkpoint and a vital body of international water.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Next, we'll go to Chris with Al Jazeera.

Q: Thanks very much. Thanks, John. You may have seen the news that one of our photographers from Al Jazeera was killed today by the Israelis. Allegedly, eyewitnesses said it was a drone attack. You told our colleague back in October: I know that you had seen no evidence -- zero evidence that journalists were being targeted in Gaza. I'm wondering if you still maintain that. And also, if you do, what would constitute evidence for you personally?

MR. KIRBY: So, first, I would just add that our deepest sympathies and condolences go out to the family and the loved ones and the colleagues and the co-workers of Samer Abu Daka -- and I hope I pronounced that right -- and to all those at your network, at Al Jazeera, and journalists around the world who are mourning this loss.

We know it's a heavy loss indeed. And we're grateful that he and your colleagues are still out there covering this war. Journalists need to be able to have the freedom to cover conflicts around the world -- to cover anything, but certainly cover conflicts. And it's never acceptable to deliberately target them as they do such vital, dangerous, dangerous work. And that's a principle that we're going to continue to abide by and to continue to make clear.

I don't know all the details about his tragic killing, so I'm not in a position to say that the operation which killed him was of a certain flavor or not.

I will tell you that, again, we stay in touch with our Israeli counterparts every day. We still don't have any indications that they are deliberately targeting journalists. And that's where I'd have to leave it.

Again, we don't know all the details of this particular strike, but we haven't seen any indications that they are, as a matter of course and policy, or even operational doctrine, deliberately going after journalists trying to cover this war.

Q: What would constitute evidence for you?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I mean, I think we'd have to -- we'd have to have more specific knowledge than we do right now about the purpose of the strike, the origin of the strike, the targeting process, the selection process, the decision to weaponeer. I mean, we'd have to know a lot more about the circumstances here before we would be able to make a call.

I want to stress that we're, as I've said many times before -- in an ongoing, dynamic conflict such as this, we are not going to make ourselves judge and jury over every single airstrike and every single kinetic event that happens on the battlefield. We will, however, continue to talk, as Jake has been doing in the region in the last couple of days, and as I'm sure that Secretary Austin when he gets to the region will do, to continue to talk to our Israeli counterparts, particularly those in the Defense Forces, about being precise, careful, cautious, targeted, and, again, mindful of the burden of making sure that they don't kill innocent civilians, and certainly that category includes journalists.

And once again, I just want to offer our deepest condolences to Al Jazeera, to -- and to the family and loved ones of Samer Abu Daka, who was on the ground doing necessary, important work for not only, you know, your viewers, but to people all around the world. So, again, our deepest condolences.

MODERATOR: Next, we'll go to Selina with ABC.

Q: Thanks, John. You talked about this transition from high-intensity to low-intensity operations. Are the Israelis and the Americans on the same page about timeline? And what's been the reaction to the Israelis when it comes to this transition?

MR. KIRBY: I think the farthest I'm willing to go on this question, Selina, is to say that Jake felt like he was able to have some constructive conversations in Israel with our counterparts about the importance of this transition. The idea of transitioning into different phases is certainly a common practice among militaries as they conduct operations of this kind.

And Jake was grateful for the time that they afforded him, the thinking that they provided, their plans and intentions. And I think there's a general agreement that a transition to lower-intensity operations obviously is going to be an important next step here.

But I won't get into the details of what that's going to look like, what the parameters are, what the conditions are that must be met to get there, or any sense of timeline by the Israelis. That would be completely inappropriate for me to do.

But Jake did, as he has been doing literally since the beginning of this, which is asking the tough questions, asking to -- asking the Israelis to get a better sense of the degree to which they are thinking ahead of themselves and doing the kind of planning and doing the kind of -- the questioning of their own assumptions as they begin to think about a transition here.

Q: The Biden administration has said the U.S. expects every country receiving its military assistance to use it in full compliance with international humanitarian law, the laws of war; Israel is no exception.

When you have the President himself accusing Israel of indiscriminate bombing, why not put conditions on military aid to Israel? Is that now being put into consideration?

MR. KIRBY: I think I've dealt with this question now for a couple of days running, and I really don't have any additional context to provide.

It is correct that all foreign military assistance, whether it's direct assistance or through foreign military sales, comes with the expectation that those materials are going to be used in an appropriate way against appropriate targets. That's not going to change; hasn't changed and won't change. And we'll continue to, again, talk to our Israeli counterparts to urge them to be, again, as precise and careful as possible. You heard Jake talk about this while we were over there.

The President believes that the approach that we've been taking has produced results, has produced outcomes. We know that the Israelis are receptive to those messages about reduction of civilian harm. And as I have said innumerable times over the last few days -- and I won't go through all the examples again; you can go back and look at my transcripts -- they have actually taken some steps. We're going to continue to talk to them about additional steps that they can take.

MODERATOR: And apologies, everyone -- Kirby has a hard out in just a minute, but I think we can do one final question if we're quick.

Aurelia from AFP, we'll turn it to you for the final one.

Q: Yeah, hi, thank you. A question about the West Bank. A number of Western nations today, and the European Union, issued a statement urging Israel to take concrete steps against violence by Israeli settlers. Is there a particular reason why the United States didn't join this call?

And more generally, the pressure this administration is putting on the Israeli government to calm things down in the West Bank doesn't seem to work. So is there a plan to increase this pressure?

MR. KIRBY: Well, you're talking about an EU statement, yeah?

Q: Yeah, EU and other nations, but mostly EU nations. Yeah.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, look, we have been crystal clear about our concerns over what's going on in the West Bank. I mean, my goodness, the President raised it many weeks ago in his press conference in the Rose Garden with his Australian counterpart. And we've been talking about it publicly, and certainly we've been talking about it privately with our Israeli counterparts, including during Jake's trip since.

So we've been very clear about our concerns over West Bank violence caused by settlers on the Palestinians. It's unacceptable. It has to stop. And as I said from the podium the other day, I mean, it's another reason why, or another potential reason why you could see escalation and widening of this conflict that we don't want to see. And I would note that the State Department also added on bans, visa bans, to settlers that are involved in this violence.

So I got to tell you, I mean, we've been out there on this. We've been clear, we've been consistent for many weeks now.

MODERATOR: And apologies, everyone, we just have to end it here because Kirby has a hard out.

Thank you, everyone, for joining the gaggle. And we'll talk to you soon. Feel free to follow up via email if you have any questions.

MR. KIRBY: Once again, I'm sorry that I was late getting to this. I do apologize. The day got a little bit out ahead of me. And, you know, we'll look to be talking to you guys early in the week, on Monday, in some form or fashion.

3:33 P.M. EST

Joseph R. Biden, On-the-Record Press Gaggle by NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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