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Transcript: Secretary of State Antony Blinken on "Face the Nation," May 12, 2024

Blinken: U.S. won't back Rafah incursion without plan to protect civilians
Blinken says U.S. won't back Rafah incursion without "credible plan" to protect civilians 08:25

The following is a transcript of an interview with Secretary of State Antony Blinken that aired on May 12, 2024.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Good morning and welcome to Face the Nation. We are learning more about the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza as thousands are fleeing what was once a safe zone, the southern city of Rafah. The challenges facing the Biden administration, from a diplomatic standpoint continue to grow too. Although the U.S. supports Israel's right to retaliate against Hamas for the brutal October 7 attack that killed more than 1,200 people. There are deep concerns about the Palestinian death toll, as even Prime Minister Netanyahu conceded that his forces have in fact killed more civilians than members of Hamas. We begin this morning with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who joins us from the State Department. Good morning, Mr. Secretary. I know military experts say Gaza is as complicated and challenging a battlefield as any modern warfare has seen. But back in December, President Biden said Israel conducted indiscriminate bombing. In February, he said Israel's offensive was over the top. And then this past week, he was asked on CNN about pausing the delivery of 3,500 bombs. Here's what he said.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which they go after population centers. I made it clear that if they go into Rafah…I'm not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah- to deal with the cities to deal with that problem.


MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Secretary, is Israel living up to international humanitarian law standards?

SECRETARY OF STATE ANTONY BLINKEN: Well first Margaret, good morning, and as you know, we put out a full report on that. But let me say this from the start. From day one, President Biden has been determined to support Israel in defending itself and trying to make sure that October 7 never happens again. At the same time, he's been very clear that in doing that, it's imperative that Israel protect civilians, and make sure that humanitarian assistance gets to those who need it. And that's what we've been doing from day one. The report that- that we put out, lays out some of the concerns that we've had throughout this period when it comes to humanitarian assistance, particularly the early months after October 7. And when it comes to the use of weapons, concerns about incidents where given the totality of the damage that's been done to children, women, men, it was reasonable to assess that, in certain instances, Israel acted in ways that are not consistent with international humanitarian law. It's also critical to note that Israel itself has accountability processes to get at this. There are hundreds of ongoing inquiries looking at different incidents that have taken place since October 7. There are criminal investigations that are going forward unlike most other countries in the world, Israel has the ability, the means and the actions to self correct. But we've been on this every single day.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you have been able then to conclude that Israel has violated US laws and weapons sharing agreements?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: No. We've concluded is in the case of the the use of weapons, as you said, this is an extraordinarily complex military environment in which you have an enemy, Hamas, that committed the most atrocious terrorist attacks on Israel, October 7, and then retreats to Gaza, hides behind and underneath civilians, in hospitals, schools, mosques, apartment buildings. And that makes it very difficult to determine, particularly in the midst of war, exactly what happened and to draw any final conclusions from any one incident. So we have a number of incidents that we continue to look at, to try to get the best possible assessment. The Israelis themselves are doing the same thing. Our assessments will be ongoing. But as I said, given the totality of what we've seen in terms of civilian suffering, in terms of children, women, men caught in this crossfire Hamas is making who've been killed or been injured. It's reasonable to assess that in a number of instances. Israel has not acted in a manner that's consistent with international humanitarian law.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So I understand you're still collecting evidence but on the policy, can you clarify? Because even the lead Democrat on House Armed Services says it's not clear. Is the US slowing down the delivery of any weapons to Israel at this point beyond the 3,500 so-called dumb bombs?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: So let me be clear about this too. First, just to take a step back, no president- no president has done more To defend Israel when it really mattered than Joe Biden. He was there in Israel in the days after October 7, the first American President to go to Israel in the midst of a war. When Iran mounted an unprecedented attack on Israel launching 300 projectiles, including ballistic missiles, the United States for the first time ever participated in Israel's active defense. And we brought together a coalition of countries to defend against the Iranian attack. But we've also been very clear over many months now about our concerns about a major military operation in Rafah. As you know, Margaret, most of the population from Gaza, displaced from the north, and from Central Gaza, has gone to Rafah, there are about 1.4 million people there. And we said to Israel that we cannot, will not support an operation in Rafah, a major military operation, in the absence of a credible plan to protect civilians.

MARGARET BRENNAN: -- and they still haven't delivered.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:-- We have not seen that plan. We have not seen that plan--

MARGARET BRENNAN: -- So- So are you following the delivery of any weapons beyond these 3500 bombs? Are you pausing, for example, precision munitions as some Republicans have claimed?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: The answer to that- the answer that is no. What the President said, and what he's been clear about, in private conversations with the Israelis, which unfortunately, leaked to the press, so the President responded forthrightly when he was asked about it. But what we've been clear about is that if Israel launches this major military operation to Rafah, then there's certain systems that we're not going to be supporting and supplying for that operation. But at present, the only thing that we've delayed and are holding back are these high payload bombs, because we're in an ongoing conversation with Israel, given the impact that those weapons can have, when they're used in densely populated areas, including an area like Rafah--

MARGARET BRENNAN: -- So you still might deliver them?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: So we're in an active conversation with Israel about that. We have real concerns about the way they're used. But here's something else that is critically important, Margaret. We believe two things. One, you have to have a clear, credible plan to protect civilians, which we haven't seen. Second, we also need to see a plan for what happens after this conflict in Gaza is open- is over. And we still haven't seen that because what are we seeing right now? We're seeing parts of Gaza that Israel has- has cleared of Hamas, where Hamas is coming back, including in the North, including in Khan Younis. As we look at- at Rafah, they may go in and have some initial success, but- but potentially at an incredibly high cost to civilians, but one that is not durable, one that's not sustainable. And they will be left holding the bag on an enduring insurgency because a lot of armed Hamas will be left no matter what they do in Rafah. Or if they- if they leave and get out of Gaza as we believe they need to do, then you're going to have a vacuum and a vacuum that's likely to be filled by chaos by anarchy, and ultimately by Hamas again. So we've been working for many, many weeks on developing credible plans for security, for governance, for rebuilding. We haven't seen that come from Israel, we've been working with Arab countries and others on that plan. We need to see that too. We have the same objective as Israel. We want to make sure that Hamas cannot govern Gaza again. We want to make sure it's demilitarized. We want to make sure that Israel gets its leaders. That's what we're determining. We have a different way. And we think a more effective, durable way of getting that done. We remain in conversation with Israel about exactly that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Secretary, your national security memorandum that you signed, says Israeli civilian harm mitigation efforts are quote "inconsistent, ineffective and inadequate." The prime minister himself said Israel assesses the IDF killed 14,000 terrorists and 16,000 civilians. Does the U.S. share the Israeli assessment that more civilians have been killed than actual terrorists?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yes, we do and I think the report makes clear that while Israel has processes, procedures, rules, regulations to try to minimize civilian harm, given the impact that this operation, this war in Gaza has had on the civilian population–

MARGARET BRENNAN: And yet, you're still surging weapons to Israel.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: – that those have not been- those have not been applied consistently and effectively. There's a gap between the stated intent and some of the results we've seen, but because it's so complicated, in the midst of a war, and particularly in the midst of a war where you have an enemy that hides in civilian infrastructure, hides behind civilians, to make final determinations on these individual incidents. We're looking at the totality of what's happened. We think it's reasonable to assess based on what's happened, that there have been acts that have been inconsistent with Israel's obligations under international humanitarian law, but we haven't drawn definitive conclusions. We need to pursue these investigations, just as Israel is doing itself.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Secretary, I have so many more questions about this, but I have to also ask you about Ukraine because Russia is making this push, as you know, into Kharkiv and the White House says that Russia is expected to increase troop levels. Is this the reality? Is this the cost of the delay in the U.S. delivering weapons to those frontlines?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, there's no- there's no doubt there's been a cost in the months-long delay in getting the supplementary budget request approved and the equipment sent out to- to Ukraine. Just this week, we did a drawdown of about $400 million in defense equipment for Ukraine coming from the supplemental. So we're doing everything we can to rush this assistance out there. Europeans are doing the same. Look, I'm convinced that Ukraine can effectively hold the line in the east, it can continue to press the advantages achieved for itself in the Black Sea, where it's getting as much out through the Black Sea, feeding the world as it did before the Russian re-invasion of Ukraine, as well as to hold Russian forces at risk, including in Crimea to make it more difficult for them to continue this aggression. We've been providing the systems to do that, but it's a challenging moment. We are not going anywhere, and neither are more than some 50 countries that are supporting Ukraine. That will continue and if Putin thinks he can outlast Ukraine, outlast its supporters. He's wrong.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Secretary, thank you for your time this morning.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Margaret.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Face the Nation will be back in one minute. Stay with us.

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