Israel has a responsibility to protect the lives of innocent people in Gaza, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sunday amid a growing outcry over Palestinian civilian deaths.
With the death toll in the Gaza Strip in the thousands and climbing, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has been under increasing pressure to make clear that its steadfast support of Israel does not translate into a blanket endorsement of all that its ally is doing in the impoverished coastal enclave.
In a round of television interviews, Sullivan said Washington was asking hard questions of Israel, including on issues surrounding humanitarian aid, distinguishing between terrorists and innocent civilians and on how Israel is thinking through its military operation.
“What we believe is that every hour, every day of this military operation, the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), the Israeli government should be taking every possible means available to them to distinguish between Hamas terrorists who are legitimate military targets and civilians who are not,” Sullivan said on CNN.
The U.S. has been clear on that issue and Biden will reiterate the position in a call later on Sunday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sullivan said.
Sullivan also said Netanyahu has a responsibility to “rein in” extremist Jewish settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. “It is totally unacceptable to have extremist settler violence against innocent people in the West Bank,” he said.
The brutal surprise attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas inside Israel on Oct. 7 that killed 1,400 people unleashed a wave of aerial bombardment from Israel and an incipient ground operation. The militants also took more than 200 hostages from Israel, who are believed to be in Gaza.
Medical authorities in the Gaza Strip, which has a population of 2.3 million people, say 8,005 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s campaign to obliterate the Iran-backed militants.
The Hamas militants who control Gaza have embedded themselves among the Palestinian population and in civilian infrastructure, making an operation against them extremely difficult, Sullivan noted.
“That creates an added burden for Israel, but it does not lessen Israel’s responsibility under international humanitarian law, to distinguish between terrorists and civilians, and to protect the lives of innocent people, and that is the overwhelming majority of the people in Gaza,” Sullivan said.
Israel has tightened its blockade and bombarded Gaza for three weeks. With supplies of food, water and medicines running low, thousands of Gaza residents broke into UN warehouses and distribution centers to get food.
There has been a mounting international outcry over the toll from the bombing and growing calls for a “humanitarian pause” to allow aid to reach Gaza civilians.
In an interview on CBS, Sullivan was asked if there was “daylight” between the U.S. and the Netanyahu government.
“We talk candidly, we talked directly, we share our views in an unvarnished way and we will continue to do that,” Sullivan replied on “Face the Nation.”
“But sitting here in public, I will just say that the United States is going to make its principles and propositions absolutely clear, including the sanctity of innocent human life. And then we will continue to provide our advice to Israel in private.”