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Kirby's clarification

White House stands by support for Israel amid deadly Rafah incident

John Kirby: ‘I have no policy changes to speak to’

Roberto Schmidt/Getty Images

John Kirby, the coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, speaks during a press briefing at the White House on February 27, 2024, in Washington, D.C.

As Israel faces global scrutiny following an attack in Rafah that killed dozens of civilians, the White House on Tuesday pledged to stand by Israel in its war against Hamas and made clear that the incident will not shift U.S. policy on arming Israel.

“I have no policy changes to speak to,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said at a press briefing. “The Israelis are going to investigate it. We’re going to be taking great interest in what they find in that investigation, and we’ll see where it goes from there.” Nothing the White House has seen yet has prompted the U.S. to consider withholding more military assistance to Israel, Kirby said. 

Israeli military officials said that a warehouse of hidden weapons may have been the culprit behind the fire that killed Palestinian civilians on Sunday, noting that the munitions Israel used in its airstrike — which the IDF said killed two senior Hamas terrorists — were small and targeted.

The Israeli strike set off a blaze that spread to a complex where Palestinians were taking shelter. The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry estimated 45 people were killed. The IDF spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, expressed “deep sorrow for this tragic loss of life” and pledged a comprehensive investigation.

“We understand that this strike did kill two senior Hamas terrorists who are directly responsible for attacks against the Israeli people. But as we’ve also said many times Israel must take every precaution possible to do more to protect innocent life,” Kirby said. “We’ve all seen the images. They are heartbreaking, that horrific.”

Earlier this month, President Joe Biden said the U.S. paused plans to send Israel certain large weapons, worried that Israel would mount a major ground operation in the densely populated city of Rafah. Sunday’s airstrike and other Israeli actions in the southern Gaza city have not yet risen to the level that Biden outlined. 

“We don’t want to see a major ground operation. We haven’t seen that at this point,” said Kirby. “The president said that should that occur, then it might make him have to make different decisions in terms of support. We haven’t seen that happen at this point.” 

Earlier on Tuesday, Vice President Kamala Harris weighed in on the Rafah incident. “The word ‘tragic’ doesn’t even begin to describe it,” she said. Harris dodged a question about whether it crossed the Biden administration’s “red line” on Rafah. 

Kirby, pressed by reporters on whether the U.S. will alter its support for Israel, asserted that Washington is giving Israel “the kinds of capabilities they need to defend themselves.” Viewed as one of the more stalwartly pro-Israel voices in the administration, Kirby delivered a terse response about the threats Israel still faces.

“Maybe some people have forgotten what happened on the seventh of October, but we haven’t. Twelve hundred Israelis, innocent Israelis slaughtered, mutilated, raped, tortured, and they’re living right next to that kind of threat, still a viable threat in Rafah. By the way if you think Hamas is just gone, they’re not gone from Rafah or from Gaza,” Kirby said. “If you think they’ve abandoned their genocidal intent towards the nation of Israel, think again. They haven’t. So Israel has every right to not want to live next to that kind of threat. And yes, we’re going to continue to provide them the capabilities to go after it.”

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