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With civilian deaths growing in Gaza, where does U.S. support for Israel's war stand?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we have been hearing from people in Gaza when we have been able to reach them, conditions in the Gaza Strip are growing worse by the day, with water, food and medicine running out and electricity, phone service and internet connections compromised or not available at all. This all comes after militants associated with Hamas, which is the governing authority in Gaza, crossed into southern Israel and killed 1,400 people and took more than 200 hostages last month. Israel has responded by pounding the area with airstrikes and is amassing a land force. The health ministry in Gaza says the death toll in Gaza has now surpassed 8,700 people. President Biden and other members of his administration have strongly backed Israel's right to defend itself, while pressing Israel to consider the way it responds. To hear more about this, we've called deputy national security adviser Jon Finer, and he's with us now from the White House. Mr. Finer, good morning. Thank you for joining us.

JONATHAN FINER: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So let me just start with the news that Israel hit a large refugee camp in Gaza's northern neighborhood of Jabalia twice this week. Israel's military says that it killed a key Hamas leader who helped plan the October 7 attack. Does the U.S. have proof that this Hamas leader was indeed killed?

FINER: Look, let me just start by saying that both the images and the reality of the crisis that is unfolding in Gaza are devastating. There are people dying who are totally innocent and who have nothing to do with the fighting. There are also a number, a significant number of legitimate military targets, given the devastating attack that Israel suffered at the hands of Hamas. As you indicated, Hamas launched this round of the conflict. But as the president has been clear, that does not diminish the obligation that Israel has to wage its side of the war in a manner that is consistent both with international humanitarian law and that distinguishes between Hamas, which are legitimate targets, and the people of Gaza, who are simply caught up in this fighting. Hamas obviously makes it far worse by the way in which they fight, often hiding among civilians in densely populated areas in Gaza.

MARTIN: Yes, I see your point. Does - that is what we also just stated. Does the U.S. have proof that this leader was in fact killed?

FINER: I'm not going to speak to this specific incident. We are not on the ground. We are not present physically, the United States government, in Gaza. We are still gathering information about it. And often initial reports end up evolving over time. So I will not speak to this as it is continuing to unfold.

MARTIN: So the U.N. Refugee Agency says that nearly 70% of those killed in Gaza to this point have been women and children. Does this response by Israel - is it proportionate?

FINER: Look, what I will say is, again, there are people who are being killed in Gaza who have nothing to do with the fighting, people who are fundamentally innocent. The president has spoken to mothers who are - spoken to the fact that there are mothers who are writing the names of their children on their bodies, so if they are separated or if their children are harmed in some way, they will be able to be found and reconnected. Nobody should have to live through this sort of situation. But there are also - again, continue to be legitimate military targets that Israel is pursuing. You spoke about the way in which this conflict began. I think that is important to bear in mind. The way in which Hamas fights this conflict in a way that actually maximizes civilian casualties on the Palestinian side is worth bearing in mind. It has to be remembered. And Israel's obligation to fight this war, even if its cause is fundamentally a just one in going after Hamas in a way that it is just is also something we are stressing.

MARTIN: What does bearing in mind mean in this context? Are you saying that whatever the civilian casualties are, the position of the United States is that this is Hamas's fault and that Israel bears no responsibility? Is that the position of the government?

FINER: Absolutely not. That's not...

MARTIN: OK.

FINER: ...Neither what we - that's neither our position nor what I literally just said on your program. We have said fundamentally that Hamas sparked this round of the fighting with its attack on Israel, that it maximizes civilian casualties by the way in which it fights and that that places a heavy burden on Israel, but that that also does not diminish Israel's responsibility to fight in a manner that is consistent with international humanitarian law and that distinguishes between fighters and noncombatants.

MARTIN: So the president has said that he wants a pause short of a cease-fire to let civilians get out, to get more relief supplies in. The prime minister of Israel, Mr. Netanyahu, has already rejected calls for a cease-fire. What's the next step here? Is there a negotiation around this point?

FINER: This is something that we will continue to discuss with our Israeli partners and allies. The president was speaking of pauses, as a number of administration officials have called for in recent days, that would allow for easier distribution of humanitarian aid and, importantly, for the release of hostages. There continue to be a significant number of hostages held by Hamas, and in order to get those hostages out of captivity and ultimately freed, which is a high priority of this administration and the international community, it will require some diminution in the fighting. The small number of hostages who have been released already during this conflict were only released when there was some pause in the fighting to allow them to move safely to a border area and ultimately out of Gaza. And the president has said and others have said that we would support doing that again.

MARTIN: And so with the border crossing with Egypt now open, we understand that there are still hundreds of Americans - American citizens, American passport holders - who are still in Gaza who can't get out. Why can't they get out now?

FINER: Well, importantly, just yesterday, a significant number of international passport holders were able to leave Gaza for the first time. That included a small number of Americans. Our understanding is that more Americans, international passport holders, have been able to depart Gaza today. That process is still unfolding. They are still departing in real time as we speak, so I can't speak to specific numbers. But this just began yesterday. It's been an important area of focus for our diplomacy, and we hope and expect that a significant number will continue to depart today and in the days ahead.

MARTIN: In this country, we're seeing reports of escalating attacks on both Jews and Muslims. We understand that the administration has released a strategy to counter antisemitism in May. Now the White House says it's developing a strategy to counter Islamophobia. Realistically, when can we see an actual strategy developed on this that we can talk about?

FINER: Well, there'll be a strategy released in the coming weeks. What I will say about this is neither antisemitism nor Islamophobia are new problems in this country, tragically, but these are phenomena that have gotten worse in the context of this conflict. The president released a strategy on antisemitism. He launched the start of a process to produce an Islamophobia strategy just yesterday. And he has said that there is no place in this country for hatred of Jews, Muslims or anyone else.

MARTIN: That is deputy national security adviser Jon Finer. Mr. Finer, thank you so much for joining us.

FINER: Thanks again for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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