With violence raging in Israel, U.S. citizens to be flown out on charters
Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (U.S. State Department photo)
As the death toll in Israel rises, the Biden administration will provide charter flights to help U.S. citizens leave the country and continued Thursday to pledge unconditional support for the Middle East ally in the aftermath of an attack by the militant group Hamas.
The number of Americans killed in Hamas’ attack that began Saturday has grown to 27, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said at a White House briefing. Fourteen Americans are unaccounted for, Kirby said.
“Five more families have now gotten the worst possible news any family can conceive of getting,” he said.
Israel has begun retaliatory airstrikes and appears to be readying a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is based, according to reports.
With violence raging, some commercial airlines, including U.S. carriers, have canceled international flights out of Israeli airports. As more U.S. citizens have sought to return from Israel while commercial flights are being reduced, the State Department will arrange charter flights out of the country starting Friday for U.S. citizens and their immediate family members, Kirby said.
The administration is also looking into other options to help Americans exit the region “by land and by sea,” Kirby added.
“We’re working hard on this,” he said. “We know there’s a demand signal out there and we’re going to try the best we can to meet it.”
The State Department is also working with Israeli counterparts to free hostages held by Hamas, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a news conference in Israel.
‘We stand with Israel’
Blinken met Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog and pledged continued support.
“I think it’s almost impossible for any of us to comprehend on a human level with what Israel has experienced at the hands of Hamas these last few days,” he said at an event with Herzog, according to a transcript from the State Department. “But we are determined to be with you as you defend your people and defend the values that join us together.”
At a news conference following his meetings with Israeli leaders, Blinken said the U.S. alliance was unshakable.
“We stand with Israel in its determination to do everything possible to ensure that what happened on Saturday never happens again,” he said.
The U.S. will continue to provide military assistance to Israel, including missiles for its Iron Dome defense system. The administration will make a funding request to Congress for further aid, he said.
“We’re working closely with Congress to ensure Israel has what it needs to do what it must,” Blinken said.
At the White House briefing, Kirby said he had no update on a funding request for Israel aid the administration plans to send to Congress. The U.S. House is currently embroiled in a prolonged fight over who will preside over the chamber as speaker, paralyzing action. The Senate is scheduled to return next week.
No peace talks in sight
The conflict — and the brutality involved — could be prolonged, Kirby warned.
“We all need to be prepared for the fact that there’s going to be additional gruesome images coming out, and there’s going to be some pretty tough reports for all of us to swallow,” he said. “This is not over.”
Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington think tank, said during a panel discussion Thursday that formal peace talks were nowhere in sight.
“The prospects for a peace process as we have come to know it in recent decades are near zero,” he said. “Obviously at this moment the Israelis have no appetite for this and have said that they will resist international pressure.”
Pulling Israel into a prolonged war, which has already seen deaths of Palestinian civilians, will likely erode the international support Israel has seen since the brutal surprise attack last weekend, Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said.
“It will eventually draw some degree of international criticism and certainly regional criticism of Israel,” Takeyh said. “This is all good news from (Hamas’) perspective.”
“As the days have gone on and the Israelis have been very clear that they would like to clear Gaza, it strikes me that this is perhaps a strategic goal of Hamas is to draw the Israelis in,” Cook said.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris met with Cabinet and national security advisers Thursday to address security threats on American soil, “including Jewish, Arab, and Muslim communities, following the attacks in Israel,” the president said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.
Some progressive Democrats in Congress have called for Israel to halt military actions that hurt civilians in Gaza, an area of about 2 million people.
Israel has cut power to Gaza and has stopped the provision of supplies to the area. That move violated international law, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, said in a Thursday tweet.
“We cannot starve nearly a million children to death over the horrific actions of Hamas, whose disregard for Israeli, Palestinian, and human life overall could not be more clear,” she wrote. “We must draw a line.”
The Biden administration is holding ongoing conversations with Israeli leaders to prioritize civilian safety, Kirby said.
“It’s just part of the conversations that we’ve been having with our Israeli counterparts about the prosecution of these military operations that Palestinian people are likewise innocent civilians,” he said. “They didn’t ask Hamas to come in and do this and I think it’s always on the president’s mind, the protection of civilian life.”
Kirby declined to answer a question about if Israel’s actions violated international law, repeating that the administration is working to provide humanitarian aid.
Kirby said Thursday he could not confirm media reports that the U.S. and Qatar agreed to rescind Iran’s access to a $6 billion fund meant for humanitarian aid.
The U.S. approved the funding, which comes from Iranian oil sales and is to be controlled by U.S.-approved humanitarian groups, this year in exchange for Iran releasing U.S. prisoners. Many members of both parties in Congress called for freezing those assets in response to Hamas’ attacks.
Though Iran has funded Hamas and other militant groups, U.S. officials have not confirmed that Iran was involved in this attack.
None of the money in the $6 billion fund has been accessed, Kirby and Blinken both said Thursday.
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