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White House pushes cease-fire deal despite lack of enthusiasm from Israel, Hamas

FILE - White House national security communications advisor John Kirby at the White House in Washington, May 17, 2024.
FILE - White House national security communications advisor John Kirby at the White House in Washington, May 17, 2024.

Despite Israeli leaders pledging to continue military operations until Hamas is destroyed and Hamas saying it cannot accept a deal without Israeli commitment to a permanent cease-fire, mediators from the United States, Egypt and Qatar continue to push through a cease-fire proposal that President Joe Biden said last week had been agreed to by Israel.

VOA White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara spoke with National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby about why Biden chose to announce the proposal instead of the Israelis, and what the challenges are to reaching a truce in Gaza.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Hamas won’t support Biden peace plan without Israeli assurances of permanent cease-fire
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VOA: President Joe Biden announced the cease-fire proposal on behalf of the Israelis, and then he rallied the G7 and the U.N. Security Council to support it. Can you explain the thinking behind his strategy?

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby: It was important to lay bare to the public what this proposal said, especially right after it was transmitted to Hamas, so that everybody can see how impactful this can be, so everybody can see what the eventual outcome might be, which is a permanent cessation of hostilities as a possibility from Phase Two. Also, because we want to make sure that Hamas knows that the world now knows what's in this proposal and what's at stake.

VOA: Is the strategy partly to empower Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu not to buckle under pressure from his right-wing governing partners? How confident is the president that the Israelis will go through with this?

Kirby: The Israelis have said it themselves – it's their proposal, they're signing up to it, they're acknowledging it, they're owning it, as they should. And we have every expectation that they'll continue to back this proposal because it is theirs and it is in their interest. It's also in Hamas' interest. They say they want the war to end; this is a path to end that war.

VOA: I understand what happens now is we'll wait for the formal response from Hamas, however ...

Kirby: Well, look, there could be some bartering and negotiations going forward. We'll see what Hamas comes back with.

VOA: The U.S. has said that it supports Israel's goal to destroy Hamas' governing and military capabilities. Are the administration and Israel aligned in terms of the parameters of what that means?

Kirby: We believe that we are aligned, that we both want to see the hostages home. Certainly, the Israelis want that. We want to see a Gaza that is not governed by Hamas. We want to see a Hamas that can't threaten Israel the way they did on Oct. 7. And we believe through our conversations with our Israeli counterparts that they too want to see the suffering in Gaza alleviated. Now, that said, they have a right and responsibility to continue to go after Hamas. And we're going to continue to help them do that. How they do that matters, and we're still having conversations with them about what's going on in Rafah.

VOA: We have the experience of Iraq, to understand what the implications of rooting out the Baath Party means. Does our understanding of that inform our strategy toward what Israel should do with Hamas?

Kirby: We're not trying to compare this to the Baath Party in Iraq in that situation. These are totally two different situations. Look, we agree with Israel, not on everything, certainly. But we agree with them on the big things: They shouldn't have to live next door to a terrorist threat. They shouldn't have to be victimized the way they were on the 7th of October. They shouldn't have to see Gaza governed by Hamas. All of those things are true. And we're going to continue to work with them to defeat that threat. At the same time, it's important for this war to come to an end, as the president said, and the best way to do that is to get those hostages out because that leads to a temporary cease-fire, which can lead to a more permanent cessation of hostilities.

VOA: Phase One is a six-week full and complete cease-fire, according to the president. Can Israel target Hamas leaders during this time?

Kirby: They are allowed to continue, of course, their operations in Rafah unless or until we get a cease-fire in place. If we can get this hostage deal inked, if Hamas agrees to it, then an immediate cease-fire takes place for six weeks. And that means that there will be no military operations in Rafah or anywhere else in Gaza.

VOA: Including targeting of Hamas leaders?

Kirby: The fighting comes to an end for the period of the cease-fire.

VOA: Including on targets?

Kirby: The fighting comes to an end.

VOA: You said the Israel Defense Forces' recent actions in Rafah have not reached your definition of a major ground operation, which the U.S. does not support without credible Israeli plans to protect civilians. But hundreds have been killed just in recent days, and a million people have fled from Rafah. Isn't this, in effect, the same result that the U.S. wants Israel to avoid?

Kirby: Look, we don't want any civilian casualties, whether it's from a targeted operation, an airstrike or something bigger than that. The right number of civilian casualties is zero. None of them are acceptable, nor should they be acceptable. But we have not seen Israel go into Rafah in a large, concerted, concentrated way. We have not seen major ground operations in Rafah. They are doing what they said they were going to do –going after Hamas leaders in a targeted, precise way. We're going to continue to watch this, obviously, and watch it closely.

VOA: Why is a major ground operation the criteria for the U.S. red line when most of the civilians have been killed in airstrikes? Why not the number of civilian deaths as the red line, if you say that the correct number is zero?

Kirby: The correct number is zero. And again, what we've told the Israelis is what the president said: that if they go in a heavy-handed way, major ground operations in Rafah in the population centers, that's going to cause us to have to relook at our own Gaza policy and the support that we're providing them. We have not seen them take that sort of a step right now. And again, we're watching it closely.