Feb 9, 2024 - World

WH: Biden's "over the top" remark about Israel's actions in Gaza not change of course

President Biden.

President Biden. Photo: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

President Biden was referring to Israeli military operations in Gaza when he said on Thursday that the "conduct of the response" in the enclave was "over the top," a senior White House official confirmed to Axios on Friday.

Why it matters: It's the harshest language Biden has used to criticize the Israeli military operation in Gaza since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. The White House official said, however, Biden's remarks do not represent a change of course.

  • "He's been vocal before about his concerns over civilian casualties and humanitarian assistance to Gaza," the official said.

What they're saying: When asked by a reporter Thursday evening about the hostage deal negotiations, Biden said: "I am of the view that the conduct of the response in the Gaza Strip has been over the top."

  • It wasn't clear at the time if Biden was referring to the Israeli military operation or to Hamas' response to the hostage deal proposal, which the president had called "over the top" two days earlier. The White House official confirmed the president was talking about the operations of the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza, but said the comment doesn't reflect a change of course in the president's thinking.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre elaborated later Friday, saying "nothing has changed" in Biden's and the administration's messaging around the war.

  • Biden's "position hasn't changed. I don't think his messaging has changed. We don't think his messaging has [changed]. He doesn't believe his messaging has changed," she told reporters at a White House briefing.
  • "He's been clear that the United States wants to see Hamas, a terrorist organization, defeated," she said. "That is a shared goal that we have obviously with Israel, but at the same time.. the president has been very clear that [Israel] must do so by ensuring that [its] operations are targeted and conducted in a way that [is] protecting innocent civilians."

Biden on Thursday said he has been pushing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "really hard" to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza. "A lot of innocent people are starving, a lot of innocent people are dying…it has to stop," Biden said.

  • He added he is pushing very hard for a hostage deal that will include a ceasefire.
  • During his answer, Biden also mistakenly referred to Egypt's leader Abdel Fattah El-Sisi as "the president of Mexico."

Between the lines: Biden's comments come as he faces growing criticism in the U.S. and internationally for his reluctance to call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

State of play: The Israeli Prime Minister's Office issued a statement on Friday stressing it is "impossible" to achieve the goal of the war of eliminating Hamas without dismantling its four battalions in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

  • At the same time, the statement said that "it is clear that intense activity in Rafah requires that civilians evacuate the areas of combat".
  • Netanyahu's office said the prime minister ordered the Israel Defense Forces to submit to the Cabinet a plan for evacuating the civilian population in Rafah and destroying the Hamas battalions in the city.

The White House this week stressed that while it doesn't have any indication that an Israeli operation in Rafah is imminent, it will not support such a move unless it is planned in a way that takes into consideration the protection of civilians.

  • More than 1 million Palestinians — many displaced from elsewhere in Gaza — are concentrated in Rafah and the surrounding areas along the border between Gaza and Egypt.

Go deeper: Biden "running out" of patience with Bibi as Gaza war hits 100 days

Editor's note: This story has been updated with White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre's comments.

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