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Biden says he's worried about civilian deaths in Gaza but questions death toll stats

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

President Biden gave an update today on the conflict in the Middle East. He says that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should hold off on a ground offensive in Gaza if there's a chance to get hostages held by Hamas out of the territory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: What I have indicated to him is that if that's possible - to get these folks out safely - that's what he should do. It's their decision. But I did not demand it. I pointed out to him, if it's real, it should be done.

SUMMERS: Biden says he's worried about civilian deaths in Gaza, but he also says he is skeptical about the death toll figures coming out of the territory. NPR's Deepa Shivaram was in the Rose Garden for Biden's remarks, and she joins me now. Hi, Deepa.

DEEPA SHIVARAM, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Deepa, we know that health officials in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip have said that more than 6,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces. What did President Biden have to say about this today?

SHIVARAM: Yeah, so this came up because Biden was asked by a reporter about the death toll of Palestinians. And he thought the death toll shows that Israel - and the question was whether he thought the death toll shows that Israel is ignoring his message to minimize civilian deaths in the aftermath of October 7. And Biden himself questioned those stats. He said he has, quote, "no confidence" in the numbers that are being cited by the health ministry, essentially saying he doesn't know if they're telling the truth about how many Palestinians have been killed. But Biden didn't say why he doesn't trust those numbers, and he didn't offer any alternative for a more accurate death count.

And the thing is, this death toll - the more than 6,000 Palestinians who have been killed - these are the only numbers available. And the United Nations and other aid groups have relied on numbers from the health ministry for years, even during previous conflicts with Israel. Biden did say he's sure innocent people have been killed, and he said that's the price of waging a war.

SUMMERS: Right, and the president also expressed concern about civilian deaths in the West Bank, which is something that our NPR teams on the ground have been reporting out as well. Tell us more about his concerns there.

SHIVARAM: Right. So there has been increased violence towards Palestinians in the West Bank as well since this war started. The health ministry there says more than 100 Palestinians have been killed. And Biden said he was alarmed by the attacks, which he blamed on, quote, "extremist settlers."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: This was a deal. The deal was made. And they're attacking Palestinians in places that they're entitled to be, and it has to stop. They have to be held accountable.

SHIVARAM: And Biden said those attacks from Israelis was like pouring gasoline on the fire in this conflict.

SUMMERS: President Biden also spent some time looking ahead. From what you heard, what does he envision will happen when there's an end to this conflict?

SHIVARAM: Right. So Biden is still saying that a two-state solution is the best path forward. And he said he's talking with leaders in the region. That includes King Abdullah in Jordan, President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. And there's been work on economic integration between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Biden said he has no evidence of this, but he said his instincts tell him that the Hamas attack happened because of the progress between Israel and Saudi Arabia. And he said there's no going back to the status quo - back to what things were like on October 6. He said Israelis and Palestinians equally deserve to live in peace.

SUMMERS: Any updates, Deepa, from the white House about getting more aid into Gaza or getting civilians out?

SHIVARAM: Yeah, the short answer is no. Biden said there needs to be more aid getting into Gaza, but there aren't really any updates on how those efforts are going. And he also says they're still looking for ways for Palestinian civilians, including the hundreds of U.S. citizens there, to get out of Gaza.

SUMMERS: NPR's Deepa Shivaram at the White House. Deepa, thank you.

SHIVARAM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF OUTKAST SONG, "LIBERATION") 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.

Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.

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