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Senior Defense Official Holds A Background Briefing On The Situation In Israel And Gaza

STAFF: Good afternoon. Thanks very much for joining us today to discuss the situation in Israel, Gaza and today's bilateral meeting with the Israeli Defense Minister.

As a reminder, today's call is on background, attributable to "a senior defense official." Not for reporting, but for your information only, our briefer today is (inaudible).

Please note, I will call on reporters. We'll try to get to as many of you as I can in the time we have. And before we begin, I'd ask that you please keep your phones on mute unless you're asking a question.

And with that, I will turn it over to our senior defense official for opening comments.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thank you, General Ryder. And thanks, everybody, for joining this call.

So Secretary Austin hosted Minister Gallant and his delegation at the Pentagon today. It's his first opportunity to host the minister in his current role, but they know each other well. Secretary Austin has visited Israel twice, and they have spoken on the phone some 40 times, most of those after October 7th. So it's a relationship that has become close and friendly and strongly consistent with the historic ties of friendship between the United States and Israel.

The secretary made clear throughout the conversation that Israel's long-term security remains a core U.S. interest. He said that we share the view that Hamas must be defeated, and that the attacks of October 7th can never be repeated. He spoke about his hopes that negotiations will soon produce the release of all hostages. The hostages should be released in any event, but that those negotiations will produce success, and recommitted to ensure that Israel always has what it needs to defend itself.

One of the important subjects that the secretary and the minister spoke about today was Rafah and Gaza. The secretary expressed the view that Hamas' remaining battalions in Rafah must be dismantled, that that's a legitimate goal that we share.

The question that has been on the table and has been discussed already between our governments in many channels is how best to go about that operation. And in that regard, the secretary stressed that the United States and Israel have both a moral imperative and a shared strategic interest in safeguarding civilians, innocents who are noncombatants and need to be protected. Obviously, there have been far too many civilians already, ci- — civilian casualties in — in Gaza.

In Rafah, the secretary expressed our goal to help Israel find an alternative to a full-scale, and perhaps a premature military operation that could endanger the over 1 million civilians that are sheltering in Rafah. And to do that, there's a requirement to ensure that those civilians can depart, can do so safely and can have their humanitarian needs met as they make their way to other parts of Gaza.

On the broader challenge of the humanitarian situation in Gaza, the secretary took note of the really dire conditions throughout Gaza. He urged Minister Gallant, as he has on many of their phone calls, to continue to diversify and scale up aid entry points into Gaza and to work with all the necessary international partners to address the problem of international aid distribution inside Gaza, and these are efforts that the secretary and the minister have been speaking about and working together on, really, for many weeks, so this was a continuation of that dialogue.

As you all know, the U.S. military is undertaking to establish a temporary maritime corridor for humanitarian assistance, and that is in process, and we expect it to be operational within the coming weeks. That's a very important component of the broader humanitarian effort, or effort to respond to the humanitarian needs in Gaza. It's not, of course, designed as an end in itself, but as an accelerant for additional aid through land crossings, through commercial solutions that might succeed it in the maritime space and through all other international efforts to increase aid delivery and distribution, to include the airdrops that we are also involved in.

So the secretary and the minister were able to discuss all of those issues and other important regional security matters, as well as to reaffirm the strong commitment of both countries to each other, to each other's security and to our common interests and common values.

So with that, General, I think I'll pause, and be happy to take some questions.

STAFF: Thank you, sir. First question will go to Associated Press, Lita Baldor.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks so much for doing this. Two quick questions. First, can you give us a sense of what Minister Gallant's response was to the secretary talking about alternatives to the Rafah wholesale ground invasion? And can you say whether or not there was any discussion of the U.S. either limiting or conditioning any weapons to Israel based on the humanit- — ongoing humanitarian efforts? Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: So I think I will allow the Israeli delegation to speak for themselves and what the minister addressed, but let me speak to the discussion they had on the alternative options that could be applied to an operation against Hamas in Rafah.

So to address that question, let me just start by describing, you know, what makes Rafah unique. First of all, as I mentioned, there's more than 1 million people sheltering in Rafah who have evacuated from other areas of Gaza, so many of these people are at least once, if not twice displaced, internally-displaced people, and we're talking about them having to move yet again.

Second, Rafah is, at this point, the primary entry point for humanitarian assistance. There's the Rafah Crossing on Egypt-Gaza border, and there's the Kerem Shalom Crossing on the Israel-Gaza border immediately adjacent to the city of Rafah.

So a major ground operation in Rafah that's not properly planned and that is — that it takes place before necessary preparations could dramatically restrict the flow of already-insufficient humanitarian assistance into Gaza, and we need to do the opposite. We need to ensure that the flow of assistance can actually grow. And that, obviously, if it happened, would have really dire consequences and create, you know, a gravely serious situation for Palestinians civilians.

Third, Rafah is at the southern end of the Gaza Strip and it borders Egypt. And Egypt, Israel's peace partner since the Camp David Accords, has very publicly and, of course, privately voiced, you know, very significant concerns over a possible Israeli operation in Rafah, what it could produce in the way of civilians trying to cross the border, and that — and it could very much complicate their relationship with Israel. Israel has spoken publicly about the importance it places on coordinating with Egypt in regard — with regard to any operation in Rafah. 

So those are some of the kind of features I think that are relevant in this conversation. As I said before, we support Israel's mission to defeat Hamas. And the Secretary expressed that. Rafah should not be a safe haven for Hamas nowhere in Gaza should be. So finding an alternative approach to defeating the Hamas battalions in Rafah in a way that protects Palestinian civilians is really the priority.

So that was the basis of the conversation. I won't get into too many more details about what each side presented. And regarding the question about security assistance, you know, security assistance, which is a longstanding feature of the U.S. Israel relationship and the U.S. Commitment Israel security, it has flowed more rapidly than ever since the attacks of October 7th. And the secretary ensures — said very clearly that we will continue to stand up for Israel's right to defend itself in accordance with the law of armed conflict and international humanitarian law, and to ensure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself.

STAFF: Thank you. Next question will go to Wall Street Journal, Michael Gordon. 

Q: Yes. Thank you. Could you please tell me, did Minister Gallant brief Israel's plan for a Rafah operation, both the kinetic part and also the humanitarian dimension of moving the civilians out in any detail? Do you even know in any detail what the Israeli concept of operations is at this point?

And could you — and when you presented American ideas for an alternative approach, did you do — brief those to the Israeli side in detail? And is there some way you can characterize what those ideas are? Do they rely on tailored operations, closing the border, phasing? What are these alternative concepts that you presented to the Israeli side? Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Well, again, I'll let the Israeli delegation speak for the minister. What we've been very clear about, what the secretary was today was about the need to prioritize civilian protection, and that a military operation should not proceed without a credible and implementable plan that ensures the safety and humanitarian support for civilian sheltering there. 

Obviously, that suggests that there is a sequence and a phasing of activities if the military aspect of the operation should not proceed until the humanitarian aspects have been fulsomely addressed. And so to the extent that they discussed, our idea is it included that sequencing, it has included the kind of precision targeting that, in fact, has even been effective in targeting some Hamas leaders elsewhere in Gaza already as the most effective means of really taking out leadership terrorist leaders, you know? 

But this was, you know, the first of what I think will be quite a number of conversations. I'm not even really sure it's the first. As you know, Secretary Blinken was in Israel on Friday, meeting with the war cabinet. There are other conversations that are expected to take place in the coming days and in the days and weeks ahead. So this is an ongoing conversation between Israeli and U.S. leaders in which we will present more of our ideas. I expect they will present additional details about their planning. And that conversation will continue. 

STAFF: Thank you. We'll go to Reuters, (Idrees ?). 

Q: Hey, so the pentagon has said that the secretary has brought up the humanitarian crisis with Gallant every time they've spoken. But, you know, earlier today, the Secretary himself said that the situation in Gaza was worsening. Do you believe the Israelis are actually listening to anything you're saying? And why not use leverage — much of the leverage that you have with them whether it's weapons or anything else because — I mean, basically, it's tough to see why they would change their behavior if you're not willing to exert any pressure on them.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: You know, first of all, again, context to this whole conversation is important. Hamas attacked Israel on October 7th brutally, killing over 1,200 Israelis, taking over 200 hostages. Half of whom are still being held by Hamas. And the United States belief, as the Secretary expressed, in Israel's inherent right to defend itself and to support and ensure they have what they need to defend their people has not changed.

We also recognize and have been very clear on the importance of ensuring civilians in Gaza remain safe. You heard Secretary Austin speak directly to the dire humanitarian conditions. And he has — through all of his conversations with Minister Gallant on the phone, in person, and in many other channels between our Department and the Ministry of Defense, we've been actively communicating the importance of taking civilian safety and security, as well as humanitarian assistance into account.

I believe and Minister Gallant did express his commitment to address those issues. They can speak in more detail about that. What we are aiming to see is a situation where Israelis and Palestinians can get past this terrible conflict, live next to each other in peace, remove the threat of Hamas to create chaos and terror that they really brought to both the Israeli and the Palestinian people. But just to emphasize the prioritization of addressing the humanitarian needs could not have been clear in this conversation. And it was a shared prioritization. 

STAFF: Great. Next question, we'll go to Jeff Schogol, Task & Purpose.

Q: Thanks for doing this. I just wanted to ask again, what are the U.S. ideas for an alternative to an assault on Gaza? If you could get specific, what are these alternatives? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Well, again, I think I'll stick with the description I had. There are ideas that relate to sequencing. There are ideas that relate to the prioritization of humanitarian assistance getting in and civilians flowing out. There are ideas that relate to the communication between Israel and Egypt, and that relate to ensuring the Egypt-Gaza border is secure and not a source of — of smuggling of terrorists out or weapons in to Gaza, and there are ideas relating to the precision targeting of — of Hamas terrorists, and particularly terrorist leaders.

So those are among the ideas. Again, there's more detail that is shared and will be shared in our discussions in private, but that's, I think, our description.

And if I can just sort of take the opportunity to mention some of the impact of Secretary Austin's ongoing commitment and advocacy to improving humanitarian assistance flow and access in Gaza, you know, we are now seeing a rather significant increase in the flow of assistance through the many crossings that it does use — the Rafah crossing, the Kerem Shalom crossing, a new crossing, 96, that Israel has opened.

And to the extent that, while in February, after a rise in the flow, up to, on some days, around 200 trucks of assistance getting in, it was down around 100 trucks getting in in February, now it's on its way back to an average of close to 200 a day.

There's definitely still more to be done. We are contributing with airdrops, we are contributing with the maritime corridor. We are addressing — we are (also ?) — and Secretary did today — urging continued maximum flow through the crossing — the land crossing points I mentioned and others.

And so we see results but we also see the need for significantly more results.

STAFF: OK, next question will go to Fadi, Al Jazeera.

Q: Thank you for doing this. Can you please clarify one point? On the one hand, you talk about alternatives to a major operation in Rafah. On the other hand, you talk about a credible plan, in case that's — that operation is going to go forward, to protect civilians and increase aid. Does the Secretary think that there is a viable plan to invade Rafah that can meet those objectives?

And then did the Secretary walk away from this meeting with a sense that his ideas about a — a more targeted operation and the need for an immediate increase in assistance, that that Israeli delegation was receptive in a positive way to these ideas? Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: The Secretary of course is very experienced, and many in our department are very experienced, with some of these very challenging operations of dealing — of working in urban environments to uproot terrorist organizations that are deeply embedded in civilian populations.

So we do have experience to draw on. That doesn't mean there's a an exact parallel between this situation and any previous situation, but it does mean that when we develop ideas, it is — it has some basis in experience.

And so, you know, we don't necessarily have every idea that one should need or what would be perfect, but we believe that the concepts that we are sharing and the additional ideas we're developing based on those concepts have the potential to achieve the dual objectives of protecting the civilians in — who are currently in Rafah and defeating the Hamas battalions that are in Rafah. We do believe that is — that is possible and we believe we have ideas that can be relevant to achieving those dual objectives.

I think it was a very good conversation today between the Secretary and the Minister. They know each other well, they trust each other, they are friends. And so the sharing of the Secretary's ideas, I would say yes, was met by very receptive ears.

STAFF: Thank you. And let's go to Fox, Liz Friden.

Q: Hey, thanks for doing this. Back to the weapons, why hasn't the U.S. put restrictions on the weapons it's sending to Israel, like the weapons that it sends to Ukraine?

And is the Pentagon considering cutting off offensive weapons and only giving defense ones, like missile defense, given the humanitarian crisis in Gaza?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: You know, all U.S. security assistance is provided — excuse me — on the expectation that that security assistance will be used by our partners in accordance with the law of armed conflict and international humanitarian law and with the facilitation as needed of humanitarian assistance to those non-combatants who find themselves in — in areas of conflict.

Those are longstanding U.S. requirements. They have been reaffirmed in the national security memorandum that President Biden signed in January and that — or February, it may have been. And based on that national security memorandum, Israel and several other countries already — others will come later — have signed assurances that they will uphold those commitments. It was Minister Gallant himself who was — who signed on behalf of the state of Israel, and he reaffirmed today that these are Israel's own principles and own values.

So we stand by those expectations and those requirements, and we also fully support Israel's right to defend itself from the kind of attacks it experienced on October 7th. So, you know, that's the — you know, that — that — that's the best way, I think, to describe our expectation regarding the use of — the use of U.S. equipment.

STAFF: OK. We'll go to Al-Monitor, Jared.

Q: Hey, sir, thank you for doing this. You mentioned that this was one of the first in a number of conversations with Israeli counterparts in which ideas will be exchanged about potential ways forward in Rafah. Did the Secretary present the ideas — these ideas in a systematic fashion or would you characterize this more as a general discussion of what is possible within the IDF's capabilities?

And secondly, is the Secretary — is the Secretary confident after this meeting that an invasion of Rafah will not go forward until at least further bilateral discussions are held on the subject?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: You know, the this is the — again, this is not the first conversation. It is a very important moment to have this conversation. And there will be other conversations. You know, some of those conversations can be shared more publicly, others are going to take place in private, and obviously things having to do with military operations are often classified.

So it — I don't know how much more, you know — and at what point we will share out of specific conversations, but the — this is — you know, the Secretary, I think, felt that it was a very productive and very — really quite meaty conversation on these concepts. Again, the though that — that conversation will continue in many channels and it will be developed further, so I'll — I — I'll think I'll leave the description at that.

I'm sorry, (inaudible), I forgot your second question.

QUESTION: The second one was, is the secretary confident that after this meeting...


QUESTION: ... the invasion of Rafah will not go forward?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, the secretary made very clear what our expectations are. That's been made clear now publicly and privately in many conversations and many statements by U.S. officials and between U.S. and Israeli officials, and we will continue to express that very, very clearly.

STAFF: We have time for just a few more. Let's go to PBS, Nick Schifrin.

QUESTION: Thanks, Pat. Thanks, (inaudible), for doing this. Gallant requested this meeting in order to talk about weapons that he believes Israel needs. Did he present you a list of that weapons? And did the secretary respond to that list of weapons positively? He and the prime minister, as you know, don't have the best of relationships. Do you have faith that everything that is being said to him here will be faithfully relayed back to the prime minister? And Israel has announced it is withdrawing from Doha its negotiators of the hostages. Did that come up at all today? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: The last point of the subject of the hostages is always a subject that Secretary Austin and Minister Gallant address. It's a major priority of both governments, and a major goal of ever since October 7th, to ensure the safe return of all hostages, which of course, includes some American hostages. So they did, of course, update each other on various aspects of those. The negotiations are being led by other parts of our government and other parts of their government, but both of them are very much aware of that — of those — of those issues.

I went backwards, so I'll start with security assistance, yeah. You know, the Israeli-U.S. dialogue on Israel's security needs is constant. It's ongoing. It adjusts to — adjusts to conditions and adjusts to the evolution of the military situation, obviously, in Gaza, but not only in Gaza. Israel faces threats and has been attacked from numerous other theaters, as well. And so it's very important that Israel have what it's — what it needs to defend itself. So the Israelis raised some issues in that regard, and the secretary was responsive to them and, you know, other announcements, if any, will come in — in due course.

Minister Gallant is a — as I've said, now become a good friend of — of Secretary Austin, and you know, when each one of them speaks to the other, they certainly speak authoritatively on behalf of their departments or ministries, and I have, you know, every faith that both of them convey the essence of those conversations to all the necessary colleagues and partners that — that they work with on both sides.

STAFF: OK, last question will go to Politico, Lara Seligman.

QUESTION: Thanks. My question's actually been asked, so you can go to someone else.


QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for the time today. Can you talk about, were the — was there any discussion about partners on the other end of the Gaza pier, or how the screening process was going to work, or any kind of additional details on how those operations are going to happen on the Gaza end? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah. You know, there are still a lot of very detailed and technical and security-related and aid delivery-related discussions underway that are happening in — in real time. We've obviously been focused on using that JLOTS system to move aid into Gaza since the president's announcement in the State of the Union. There are six ships on their way to the Eastern Mediterranean as part of that effort to construct a temporary pier. There's active discussions with humanitarian organizations and international donors about the assistance itself, and then how to facilitate its delivery. When the ships arrive in the next few weeks, they'll begin the process of assembling the temporary pier.

Once it's constructed, we estimate it will be able to deliver upwards of two million meals a day to the Palestinian people. As I've said before, it's just one part of the U.S. government's overall efforts to provide lifesaving humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza and is part of the sustained effort to deliver more aid, and it does not in any way replace — in fact, it is additive to other streams of assistance, particularly those coming in on land crossings that we believe must also increase at the same time. 

STAFF: Great, thank you very much, sir. 

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you again for joining us. Again, as a reminder, this discussion was on background attributable to "a senior defense official", and we will post a transcript to the DOD website when available. Thanks very much. Take care.