The U.S. says it has an obligation to “stand with our friends” and support Israel as it continues its operation against militant group Hamas in the wake of the stunning October 7 attack that left more than 1,400 Israelis dead.
Israel’s offensive has since killed “many, many thousands of Palestinians,” the White House says – President Joe Biden has openly questioned figures from the Gaza Ministry of Health, which is run by Hamas, which the U.S. classifies as a terrorist group. This week, assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf told a House panel that the ministry’s reported death toll – 10,000 people – may be “higher than is being cited.”
State Department Deputy Spokesperson Nathan Tek spoke late Wednesday to VOA’s Anita Powell about the conflict, why the U.S. supports “humanitarian pauses” but not a ceasefire, and why the U.S.’ lead foreign policy organ believes there is “no equivalency between Israel and Hamas.”
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: Let’s start with the conflict between Israel and Hamas. A senior Biden administration official told us that U.S. support for a cease-fire depends on the Israelis feeling secure that something like the Hamas attack will never happen again. Can you elaborate on what that means? How can we ascertain Israel’s confidence in its security?
Tek: Well, if you take into account what happened on October 7, we saw the greatest loss of Jewish life since World War II. It was a profoundly devastating, despicable, abominable attack on Israeli civilians that day. And of course, Israel has the right and, indeed, the obligation to defend itself and that is exactly what Israel is doing. And that is exactly what the United States is helping Israel to do: to ensure that it has what it needs to do what it takes to defeat Hamas. We have been quite clear that we support humanitarian pauses so that civilians can get to safety, so that aid can get to those who need it. It is not the policy of the United States to support a cease-fire, because what a cease-fire means, in effect, is that Israel would cease firing, but that Hamas, of course, would be allowed to regroup, re-attack and freeze the battle as it is.
VOA: Next week, President Biden meets with President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, who leads the largest Muslim country in the world. What’s the message to the leader and the people of this large Muslim country that aligns itself with the Palestinian cause?
TEK: I’m sure that the conflict between Israel and Hamas will come up in those meetings. I think our message to any Muslim country – any Muslim community around the world – is that this is not a religious conflict. This is not about Israel versus Muslims. This is about Israel against a terrorist organization, Hamas, that has a radical extremist interpretation of Islam, that is engaged in a war of choice against Israel. Hamas has dragged 2 million civilians in Gaza into this conflict and into the crossfire. So, this is not a religious conflict. This is a conflict about politics. It’s a conflict about defeating terrorism.
VOA: Let’s talk about something that has been coming up in the White House briefing room, which is: can you explain why the U.S. doesn’t believe that what Israel is doing in Gaza amounts to collective punishment – war crimes – which is something that the United Nations’ refugee agency believes?
TEK: I want to be clear here: The United States, of course, supports Israel’s right to defend itself. Israel is a democracy just like the United States and democracies, of course, have a special obligation to protect civilians and to respect international humanitarian law. I think it is important to draw a distinction – which many unfortunately do not do – between Hamas and Israel. Hamas has deliberately targeted civilians and they have continued to do so with rocket attacks on Israeli civilian infrastructure. Hamas has in fact, without a doubt, violated international humanitarian law. Hamas has also placed an added burden on Israel because Hamas uses civilians as human shields. A clear message that we’ve conveyed to Israel that we’re discussing with Israel as friends and allies do is that Israel has the obligation to take every measure possible to minimize civilian casualties. We will continue to have those conversations with our friend Israel and we will continue to do what we can to ensure that Israel can defeat a terrorist organization.
VOA: But to be clear, does the U.S. believe that Israel has crossed any lines here like Hamas has?
TEK: No, there is no equivalency between Israel and Hamas.
VOA: A senior Hamas official told Lebanese media that Hamas has intensified its contacts with Beijing and Moscow. Is this a concern for the U.S., and what are you doing to address this, if anything?
TEK: It is our view that all outside actors and members of the international community should be playing a positive role here in seeking to ensure that terrorism does not go unpunished. And we believe that it is incumbent upon the international community to reject terrorism, to reject terrorist organizations, and to condemn what Hamas did on October 7.
VOA: Why is unity among the Group of 7 wealthy liberal democracies on Israel important, and how is this bloc moving things forward? And what tools does this bloc have?
TEK: We saw, I think, a very strong statement come out of the G7 meetings in Tokyo, calling for humanitarian pauses, condemning Hamas’ attacks. And I think that really does reflect a sense among the United States and its closest, most like-minded partners and allies, that what Hamas did is unacceptable, Hamas should never again be able to use Gaza as a platform to launch strikes against Israeli civilians, and drag Palestinian civilians into a conflict that they did not ask for. So, we will continue to work with our G7 allies and partners – and countries from around the world, frankly – in order to ensure that terrorism is defeated, because this is really a multilateral challenge that requires, in some cases, multilateral solutions.
VOA: My final question is about Ukraine, and something that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently said: he basically said that he needs one more year of U.S. support. I’d like you to just elaborate on what that could mean, if you think that that’s realistic, and if he’s going to get it.
TEK: We have been clear from the start of this conflict that we will support Ukraine as long as it takes to ensure that Ukraine can defend the democratic, independent, sovereign and prosperous nature of its country. And that is something that we’ve made a commitment to, and that we will continue to fulfill that commitment.
VOA: Is there anything else you’d like to tell our global audience?
TEK: I just want to thank you for having me. And I want to be clear that it’s important, in times like these, for the United States to demonstrate that it stands with its friends and allies around the world. Israel is engaged in a very serious fight for its future, for its existence. And we have to stand with our friends.