White House says Palestinians ‘living in hell’ but says no genocide in Gaza

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, May 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (AP)
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, May 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (AP)

The White House on Monday condemned the conditions in which Palestinians in Gaza have been forced to live after seven months of Israel’s war against Hamas but stopped short of saying the high civilian death rate amounts to a genocide.

In what were the Biden administration’s strongest remarks on the humanitarian situation in Gaza since the start of the war after the October 7 terror attacks, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the US still “wants to see Hamas defeated” and hopes “justice” will be delivered to Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, but he also said “there can be no equivocation on that to the Palestinian civilians caught in the middle of this war are in hell” during a press briefing on Monday.

“The depth and trauma they've endured are unimaginable. Their pain and suffering are immense. No civilian should have to go through that,” he said, adding that the conditions in Gaza and the suffering of the Palestinian people “are on the president’s mind everyday”.

Mr Sullivan also stated that Israel faces “an unusual, even unprecedented burden” in conducting their war on Hamas because of the militant group’s use of “hospitals and schools and other civilian facilities for military purposes” and the “vast network of tunnels” under Gaza that put “innocent civilians in the crossfire” because of their location in civilian areas.

But he cautioned that those conditions don’t “lessen Israel's responsibility to do all it can to protect innocent civilians” and said Israeli forces “can and must do more “to ensure the protection and well being of innocent civilians”.

Mr Sullivan continued by denying the view that the civilian death toll in Gaza amounts to a genocide against Palestinians, telling reporters: “We do not believe what is happening in Gaza is a genocide. We have been firmly on record rejecting that proposition.

He added that the US would “continue to lead international efforts to surge humanitarian assistance throughout the Gaza Strip, because innocent civilians should never go without food, water medicine shelter, sanitation, or other basic necessities”.

The comments from President Biden’s top national security aid come days after Mr Biden said he would withhold offensive arms to Israel if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government went ahead with a full-scale assault on Rafah, the area in southern Gaza where millions have taken shelter after months of Israeli bombing in the north.

Mr Netanyahu, who needs to remain in office to avoid trial and possibly prison if found guilty of corruption charges, has vowed to press on with the Israeli operation in Rafah over American objections.

Asked whether the embattled Israeli leader’s defiance of Mr Biden shows the US now lacks clout with its’ longtime ally, Mr Sullivan said Israel’s government is its’ own and Mr Netanyahu has to answer to his own constituents.

“The prime minister doesn’t have to answer to us. He’s got to answer to the Israeli people,” he said.