Netanyahu defends Gaza bombardment after Biden criticizes 'over the top' offensive

Israel's prime minister also said he saw no signs of Biden having memory issues.

February 11, 2024, 11:12 AM

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is defending his military's continued bombardment of Gaza, targeting Hamas fighters, after President Joe Biden criticized the campaign as "over the top" given the dire conditions and high death toll in the Palestinian territory.

When asked about Biden's remark in a Sunday interview with ABC News "This Week" co-anchor Jonathan Karl, Netanyahu said he appreciated the president's support thus far and laid the blame for civilian casualties with Hamas, whose terror attack in October sparked the current war.

"I don't know exactly what he [Biden] meant by that, but put yourself in Israel's shoes. We were attacked. Unprovoked attack, murderous attack on Oct. 7," Netanyahu said, adding, "I think we've responded in a way that goes after the terrorists and tries to minimize the civilian population in which the terrorists embed themselves and use them as human shields."

Karl pressed Netanyahu on the number of deaths, with the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health estimating more than 28,000 killed. The Israeli prime minister acknowledged many civilians had been killed but claimed -- without presenting evidence -- that Israel's military is currently killing more Hamas fighters than civilians.

"I'd be cautious with the Hamas statistics, and I can tell you that according to these urban warfare experts and other commentators, we've brought down the civilian-to-terrorist casualty, the ratio down, to below 1-to-1, which is considerably less than in any other theater of similar warfare. And we're going to do more," Netanyahu said.

"Wait a minute. You're saying it's only been one civilian that's been killed for one Hamas terrorist in Gaza?" Karl followed up.

Netanyahu insisted that was true.

Israel's operations in Gaza have come to largely focus on Rafah, a city in the south that is estimated to now be sheltering some 1.4 million Palestinians. Netanyahu said that while Israeli forces fight with Hamas in Rafah, civilians would be able to flee back to the north, where much of the infrastructure has already been destroyed in the war.

"They're living in tents. Where are these people supposed to go?" Karl asked.

"The areas that we've cleared north of Rafah, plenty of areas there. But we are working out a detailed plan to do so. And that's what we've done up to now. We're not, we're not cavalier about this, this is part of our war effort to get civilians out of harm's way," Netanyahu maintained.

Karl noted that the Biden administration and the Egyptians are among those warning of major humanitarian consequences if Israel targets Rafah.

But Netanyahu said Israel had no other choice: "Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying lose the war, keep Hamas there."

"Victory is within reach. It has to be understood," he said. "And victory will be the best thing that will happen not only for Israel but for the Palestinians themselves. I can't see a future for the Palestinians or for peace in the Middle East if Hamas is victorious."

The goal, Netanyahu said, is to "dismantle Hamas as a military force that controls territory. ... We shouldn't stop."

PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives statements to the media inside The Kirya, which houses the Israeli Defence Ministry, after their meeting in Tel Aviv, Oct. 12, 2023.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives statements to the media inside The Kirya, which houses the Israeli Defence Ministry, after their meeting in Tel Aviv, Oct. 12, 2023.
Jacquelyn Martin/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Israel is also hoping to recover more than 130 people -- both dead and alive -- whom Hamas took hostage during its Oct. 7 attack, which killed about 1,200 people in Israel, Netanyahu's office has said.

Pressure has been high on Netanyahu to make progress on another deal with Hamas after an agreement late last year saw a pause in the fighting in exchange for more than 100 hostages being released. Talks have been ongoing for another compromise, but the prime minister said that while he sympathizes with the hostages' families, the war effort must continue.

"I'm not sure that anybody can put themselves in the position of the families, but neither can the families put themselves in the position of the decision-makers. These are two separate things. They reach our heart. They reach my heart. But I'm also responsible for the safety and the security of the people of Israel and to make sure that these terrorist outrages and these kidnappings do not happen again," Netanyahu told Karl.

In light of the concerns of many relatives of the hostages that more could be done, Karl asked, "What is the higher priority at this moment: totally eliminating Hamas or saving the lives of those hostages and getting them freed?"

"They're not mutually exclusive," Netanyahu said. He said the previous hostage deal had come together only "because we applied military pressure, not because we stopped applying it."

He took a similarly hard line on the future of Gaza after the war, downplaying the immediate prospects for a two-state solution -- the policy that has long been formally advanced by the U.S. -- and insisting that Israel must retain security control over every piece of land west of the Jordan River.

"The substance I've always said in a future peace agreement, which everybody agrees is far off, I think the Palestinians should have the powers to govern themselves but none of the powers to threaten Israel," he said. "And the most important power that has to remain in Israel's hands is overriding security control in the area west of the Jordan. That includes Gaza."

Looking to U.S. politics, Karl asked Netanyahu about special counsel Robert Hur's recent report describing notable issues with Biden's mental recall, given Netanyahu's lengthy relationship with the president.

"I've had more than a dozen phone conversations, extended phone conversations, with President Biden. He also came on a visit to Israel during wartime, which was a historic first, and I found him very clear and very focused," Netanyahu said. "We managed to agree on the war aims and on many things. Sometimes we had disagreements, but they weren't borne of a lack of understanding on his part or on my part. So, that's what I can tell you. So, I haven't seen that."