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NSC spokesperson John Kirby on Israel-Hamas war

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Today, all eyes are on Israel and Gaza as thousands of Israeli troops prepare for what appears to be an imminent ground invasion into the besieged Palestinian territory. This comes eight days after Hamas launched its deadly attack on Israel, killing 1,400 Israelis and taking more than a hundred people hostage. Since then, Israel has hit back hard, launching a bombing campaign which has killed more than 2,600 Gazans, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. For more on how the Biden administration sees things, I'm joined now by National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JOHN KIRBY: Thank you, Scott. Good to be with you this afternoon.

DETROW: Look, the U.S. is working and standing closely with Israel, and I'm wondering what specifically the government is doing on its part to make sure civilian casualties are kept to a minimum in Gaza.

KIRBY: Well, we don't want to see any civilian deaths or injuries as a result of this conflict. The right number of civilian casualties, quite frankly, Scott, is zero. And we're obviously going to do everything we can to try to achieve that sort of outcome. That said, it's important to remember that Hamas is sheltering - or sheltering themselves among the human population in Gaza. They're ordering people not to leave their homes. They're - they have command and control centers in hospitals, schools and tunnels underneath Gazan homes. So they are placing the innocent people of Gaza at direct risk. Now, we are actually, of course, talking to our Israeli counterparts about, you know, the rule of law - law of armed conflict, respect for human life, which they share with us, they share with us.

DETROW: And I'll hop in here. But one of the big things of rule of law that we've seen in the past week is this total siege of Gaza- food, water, other supplies being barred from Gaza. That's something that goes against international law. And there's been a lot of reports that the administration pressured Israel to let up on that a little bit. Is that the case?

KIRBY: I won't talk about our diplomatic conversations with Israel. I will say this, though, Scott, we believe that humanitarian assistance should absolutely continue to flow to the people of Gaza. They have every right to expect food, water and medicine. And the United States is going to continue to work with our partners to that end.

DETROW: You mentioned the Rafah gate earlier. This is the southern border of Gaza.

KIRBY: Right.

DETROW: A lot of Americans in Gaza were told to go there this weekend. We talked to a lot of people who were not able to get out. First of all, can you tell us - we have seen reports it may open in the next few hours. Is that something you're able to tell us about?

KIRBY: I'm not at liberty to talk about the specifics there. I mean, obviously, we want to make sure that we protect the safety and security of people trying to get out as much as possible. I will tell you, Secretary Blinken is still in the region as we speak, and he has been working on that problem diligently with our partners in Israel and with Egypt. We hope to have a positive outcome here.

DETROW: But the State Department was telling people to go there. It was never opened. Do we know why it was never opened?

KIRBY: Well, part of the reason was Hamas was putting up roadblocks and refusing to let people even approach the gate. So again, we're going to work on this very, very hard with both Israel and Egypt. We want to see safe passage for people that want to get out.

DETROW: Meantime, a second U.S. aircraft carrier strike group is now headed to the region. You and others have said the main goal here is deterrence. Is this a signal specifically for Iran?

KIRBY: This is a signal for anybody, including Iran - any other entity, whether it's a nation-state or a terrorist group that has hostility to Israel and thinks that now would be the moment to try to jump in and widen and expand this conflict - that they shouldn't do it.

DETROW: How likely does the administration see some sort of Iranian involvement at the moment, either directly or indirectly, via Hezbollah? How concerned are you about that?

KIRBY: We're very concerned about another actor trying to take advantage here and jumping in. What I would tell you is we have not seen any specific indications that that's in the offing. And again, our message to any such actors would be, don't do it. We have serious national security interests in the region, and we mean to protect and defend them.

DETROW: And on the U.S. military in the region, has the administration ruled out possibly using the U.S. military to try and rescue some of these Americans believed to be held hostage right now by Hamas?

KIRBY: We are working very diligently to get enough information to make a policy decision about how to get them back with their families. We just don't have enough information about where they are, what conditions they're being held in to make those policy options. I will just tell you this, Scott, nothing is more important to President Biden than the safety and security of Americans that are being held hostage or wrongfully detained overseas. We're going to do everything we can. We're just not at the point now where we can rule anything specific in or out, because we're still trying to get a lot of information about how many there are and where they might be.

DETROW: Do we have a sense - more of a sense of how many there are? Is that something you can share?

KIRBY: It's a - I think I described it the other day in the White House briefing room as less than a handful, and I would tell you that today that's our - that's still our assessment. But we still have about 14 to 15 Americans that are unaccounted for. And it's entirely possible that some of that number are in the hostage pool. We just don't know.

DETROW: OK. That is National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. Thank you so much for joining us.

KIRBY: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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