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After Hamas attack, Biden assures Netanyahu that U.S. stands with Israel

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

All this morning, we're reporting on a third day of war in the Middle East. Militants from the group Hamas launched a surprise attack on Saturday, slipping out of Gaza, killing hundreds of people, including civilians. And Israel has responded with attacks on Gaza, killing hundreds there. Hamas is apparently holding hostages, including women and children. So how is the United States responding? President Biden says the U.S. stands with Israel and the U.S. Navy is sending ships to the region.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We'll make sure that they have the help their citizens need and they can continue to defend themselves.

INSKEEP: Jon Finer is the White House deputy national security adviser and he is our next guest on the phone. Mr. Finer, good morning.

JON FINER: Good morning. Thanks for having me on.

INSKEEP: Let's follow-up on what the president said. What support does Israel need from the United States?

FINER: Well, ever since this appalling set of attacks began, we have been in direct contact with the Israeli government - our diplomats, our intelligence officials and our military officials, as well as, obviously, the president speaking twice now with Prime Minister Netanyahu - first and foremost, to offer support and solidarity and to find out what specifically the United States can do to be most helpful. Two of those steps were announced yesterday by the secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin.

One, the movement of a carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean with a clear message of do not expand this conflict being sent to others who may have hostile intent towards Israel. And the President was quite clear about that in his remarks as well. The other step that the secretary of defense announced was the transfer of certain munitions - and we're not going to detail for operational reasons exactly which ones - from the United States to Israel, which the Israelis requested and said they need. And there will be more to come in terms of broader support.

INSKEEP: You said a carrier strike group. I guess we should define that for people. This is a large aircraft carrier with a lot of planes. There are a number of other ships involved. But it sounds like you're saying they are there symbolically and not necessarily to act. Is that right?

FINER: We don't consider it to be purely symbolic. We consider deterrence in the current moment to be quite important in terms of what actually happens and how this unfolds on the ground. The president cautioned again other parties from seeking to open any sort of second front in this conflict. And the carrier strike group, as well as the president's words, are intended to send that message in a strong and clear way.

INSKEEP: A second front, meaning some other attack on Israel in this context. Let's talk about the role, if any, of Iran in this attack. It's well-known that Iran has supported Hamas over the years. The Wall Street Journal, though, over the weekend had some reporting that went a little further, quoting anonymous Hamas sources saying that Iran had approved this attack in advance and helped with the planning. What evidence, if any, does the United States have of that?

FINER: What I can say is we have been quite clear that Iran is broadly complicit in what has transpired for exactly the reason that you indicated. For decades, Iran has provided financial support, has provided weapons, has provided training to Hamas, has helped built the entity that ended up crossing into Israel and wantonly killing Israeli civilians and military personnel over the last couple of days. So Iran is definitely in the picture of these events.

That said, neither we nor, apparently, the Israeli Defense Forces has any specific information about Iran's direct involvement in the last couple of days' attacks. I'll quote from the IDF - Israeli Defense Forces - spokesperson, who said, "Iran is a significant player, but we cannot say that it planned the operation or trained for it." We do not have any specific information at this time that suggests anything different from that. But this is something that we're going to continue to look at very closely.

INSKEEP: Meaning that Iran is not being viewed right now as a direct participant, a direct assailant or a direct attacker on Israel. Is that right?

FINER: What I'd say at this time is we cannot rule that out, but we have no specific information that suggests a direct role for Iran in the last couple of days' events, despite its broad complicity in building and equipping Hamas.

INSKEEP: Mr. Finer, in a moment, we're going to hear from a Palestinian voice, a Palestinian perspective. And I want to ask about this aspect of this. Israel has responded to these brutal attacks with airstrikes into Gaza. We can presume that more is to come, even if we don't know exactly what. Hundreds of people are dead there. And the Palestinian ambassador to the U.N., Riyad Mansour, said this about Israel's strikes.

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RIYAD MANSOUR: You cannot say nothing justifies killing Israelis and then provide justification for killing Palestinians.

INSKEEP: So let me ask, as Israel responds to this attack, what responsibility does Israel have for civilians in Gaza?

FINER: What I would say, Steve, is that we in the United States, including in the United States governments, are grieving the heinous loss of life among Israeli civilians. And we'll grieve any loss of life among Palestinian civilians, and there has already been some as well. Innocents get caught up in these conflicts, and that is a tragic - maybe the most tragic part of them. But we also categorically reject any false equivalency between the incidental targeting of civilians unintentionally that happens in the course of conflict, all conflicts, and the deliberate killing and abduction of civilians by choice, which Hamas clearly perpetrated and was clearly part of, if not the primary goal, of the attacks that they conducted over the last couple of days. These are not the same thing.

INSKEEP: Understood. Jon Finer is the White House deputy national security adviser. Thanks for joining us once again.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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