Accessibility links

Breaking News

Biden ‘Personally Involved’ in Israel-Hamas Hostage Deal, White House Says

FILE - National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Nov. 20, 2023, in Washington.
FILE - National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Nov. 20, 2023, in Washington.

President Joe Biden was “personally involved” in the deal to secure the release of about 50 hostages held in Gaza by Hamas, John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, said in an interview Wednesday.

The release, which has now been pushed back to at least Friday, is to be accompanied by Israel’s release of 150 Palestinian prisoners, a days-long temporary cease-fire and the delivery of more humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Kirby, who spoke to Paris Huang, the VOA Mandarin White House correspondent, also dismissed recent diplomatic efforts by China to broker an end to the Israel-Hamas conflict. Analysts have described the attempt as a bid by Beijing to position itself as a more credible peacemaker in the Middle East than the United States.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA: What was President Biden's role in the Israel-Hamas hostage deal?

NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS JOHN KIRBY: The president was personally involved at the leader level to see if we can get this deal done. In fact, he was speaking to the emir of Qatar just last week while we were in San Francisco for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. So he was personally engaged and involved. He's been updated, sometimes multiple times a day, on how things were going with a negotiation. And of course, he directed the entire national security team to work hard on this outcome as well, from the CIA director to the secretary of state and national security adviser. … And of course, special envoy on the ground David Satterfield was pivotal, as was our coordinator for the Middle East Brett McGurk. So it really was a team effort.

VOA: A delegation of Arab and Muslim countries had a meeting on Gaza in Beijing this Monday. Do you believe that meeting could be constructive, and did President Xi promise to help on this issue when he met with President Biden last week?

KIRBY: I'll let President Xi speak for himself on what he will or won't do. The president did raise the issue of what's going on in the Middle East with President Xi and we certainly urge President Xi to use his influence in Tehran to make sure that we were communicating to the supreme leader how seriously we take what's going on and that we don't want to see this war widen or escalate. And of course, Tehran can have a role in that or not. And so that was certainly a message to President Xi. But China has interest in the region too. Our strong desire would be that they would use their influence in the region to that larger effect.

VOA: The delegation, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Indonesia, plans to also travel to Washington. What would be your message?

KIRBY: I’m not going to get ahead of a discussion that hasn't happened. I think you can expect that our message will be the same as it has been; that that we want to continue to work with our partners in the region and many of these partners have been enormously helpful so far. Jordan, Egypt, certainly, in their communications with Hamas helped broker this deal. They have all been helpful in their own way. And I think what you can see us continue to do in our discussions with them is talk about ways in which they can be more helpful going forward.

There are so many countries that have an interest in what's going on in the region writ large, and certainly have an interest in what's going on between Israel and Hamas. Every nation is a sovereign state. They can all speak for themselves on how they want to pursue their interests.

What we want to make sure is a few things: Number one, that Israel has the tools and capabilities it needs to go after this very viable threat by Hamas, an existential threat to Israel. Number two, that all of us with interest in the region and obviously people that live in the region, do whatever we can to continue to help the people of Gaza through humanitarian assistance, medical assistance, food, water, medicine and fuel. The United States is leading the world in trying to get that kind of humanitarian assistance in and we're certainly going to be looking for additional contributions that can be made by our partners who actually live in the neighborhood.

VOA: Are you concerned that China might gain a better hand dealing with Arab and Muslim countries right now?

KIRBY: We’re comfortable with our relationships. We’re comfortable with American leadership in the region. We’re comfortable that we have the ability to work through partners in the region to achieve outcomes and results that are beneficial to all of us. So I’ll let China speak for themselves. President Biden is comfortable with our leadership on the world stage and particularly there in the region.

VOA: There's an open letter signed by the international aid organization overseeing the Indonesian Hospital in Gaza accusing President Biden of destroying international rules [that civilians and hospitals should be protected] and hurting humanitarian values in his support of Israel. What is your response?

KIRBY: President Biden has made it clear that we're going to continue to support Israel as they conduct these operations against Hamas. They have a right and a responsibility to do it. No nation should have to suffer the attacks that they suffered on Oct. 7, and we're going to continue to stand with Israel, and we're going to do so in a steadfast way.

At the same time, we're going to continue to urge Israel to be as careful and deliberate and cautious in their targeting and in their operations as possible so that an impact on civilian life can be minimized, civilian casualties can be reduced. Obviously, many, many thousands of innocent people in Gaza have been killed as a result of this conflict. And certainly, we don't want to see any more killed. We don't want to see any more wounded, and we'll continue to work with Israel to that effect.

But I also think it's important to remember who's putting these people in harm's way and that's Hamas. Hamas started this on the seventh of October by slaughtering innocent Israelis, some of them in their homes, some of them in front of their kids, and then they go back to Gaza. And what do they do? They hide in tunnels, they hide in hospitals. They put innocent people of Gaza in the crossfire between the Israel Defense Forces and themselves. That itself is a war crime. That itself is a violation of international law. That's abominable. And that's the kind of threat that the Israelis are facing.

VOA: You mentioned the administration hopes President Xi will use his influence on Iran. At this moment, do you believe that Iran is still heeding U.S.’s message to not widen the war in Gaza?

KIRBY: We haven't turned a blind eye to Iran’s destabilizing behavior and the support that they have given to Hezbollah, the support that they've given to Hamas, the support that they give to the Houthis in Yemen, the attacks on maritime shipping, I could go on and on and on. The support that they're given Mr. Putin in Ukraine. We haven’t turned a blind eye to any of that. And our message to Iran today is the same as it was yesterday, the day before that. This is not the time to be thinking about escalating or widening or deepening this conflict. Now, again, we haven't seen any actor in the region jump all in with both feet and try to do that. Our message to anybody thinking about that, including Iran: Don't do it.