Biden says he ‘did not demand’ Israel delay ground incursion due to hostages

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(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden said Wednesday he “did not demand” Israel delay a ground incursion of Gaza in an effort to protect hostages and keep humanitarian aid flowing into Gaza.

“What I have indicated to [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] is that, if it’s possible, to get these folks out safely that’s what he should do. It’s their decision. I did not demand it,” Biden said.

“Obviously, they’re in jeopardy,” Biden said of the hostages. “The question is whether or not there’s any way of getting them out. If we can get them out, we should get them out.”

After weeks of bombing in Gaza, Biden reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself by eliminating the threat posed by Hamas after it launched a terror attack on Oct. 7 — while also stressing the need for Israel to limit civilian casualties and offer a “vision of what comes next.”

“There’s no going back to status quo as it stood on October the 6th,” Biden said on Wednesday, referencing the eve of the terrorist attacks on Israel that claimed more than 1,400 lives. “That means ensuring Hamas can no longer terrorize Israel and use Palestinian civilians as human shields.”

Biden underscored the administration’s support of a two-state solution — which would establish an independent Palestinian homeland alongside Israel — and said it would take cooperation from all sides to turn that vision into a reality.

“It means a concentrated effort from all of the parties, the Israelis, the Palestinians, regional partners, global leaders, to put us on a path toward peace,” Biden said.

Biden delivered his remarks on the conflict in the White House Rose Garden alongside Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who was welcomed to Washington for a state visit intended to strengthen a key U.S. alliance in the Pacific, although the conflict in the Middle East loomed large over their agenda.

As regional backlash to Israeli strikes on Gaza grows, both Biden and Albanese stressed the need for additional humanitarian aid as well as the need to protect civilians lives in the area.

“Hamas is hiding behind Palestinian civilians and it’s despicable — and not surprisingly — cowardly as well. This also puts an added burden on Israel while they go after Hamas,” Biden said. “But that does not lessen the need to operate and align with the laws of war.”

“In times of crisis, respect for international humanitarian law is paramount,” Albanese said.

But Biden also pushed back on the more than 6,500 civilian casualties the Hamas-controlled Gaza health ministry claims have resulted from Israel’s retaliation — a number the administration and reputable international organizations have no way of verifying. ABC News has not independently confirmed those casualty numbers.

“I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed. I’m sure innocents have been killed, and it’s the price of waging a war,” Biden said.

“Israelis should be incredibly careful to be sure that they’re focusing on going after the folks that are propagating this war against Israel, and it’s against their interest when that doesn’t happen, but I have no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using,” he added.

While the administration has repeatedly highlighted its efforts to prevent the conflict from spreading across the Middle East, Biden was pressed on whether strikes carried out by Iranian-backed proxy groups on U.S. military installations in Iraq and Syria are evidence that is already happening.

“We have had troops in the region since 9/11 to go after ISIS and prevent its reemergence,” Biden responded. “My warning to the Ayatollah [Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran] was that if they continue to move against those troops, we will respond, and he should be prepared. It has nothing to do with Israel.”

Earlier in the event with the Australian prime minister, Biden again speculated that the impetus for Hamas’ attacks was to foil the progress towards the normalization of diplomatic ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, a long-held goal of the administration and a prospect abhorred by Iran and many extremist groups in the region.

“I’m convinced one of the reasons Hamas attacked when they did — I have no proof of this, my instinct tells me — is because of the progress we were making toward regional integration for Israel and regional integration overall. And we can’t leave that work behind,” Biden said.

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