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White House seeks weapons package for Israel amid ‘real risk of escalation’

Jake Sullivan with Joe Biden at the Eisenhower executive office building in Washington last week.

Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan toured the US Sunday morning shows to sell White House policy on the conflict between Israel and Hamas as Israeli forces massed on the border ahead of an expected ground incursion into Gaza amid a deepening humanitarian crisis there and fears over the conflict spreading.

Responding to an Axios report that Iran warned Israel through the United Nations that it will intervene if the Israeli operation in Gaza continues, Sullivan told ABC’s This Week that he could not confirm it.

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But, he said, the US is “concerned” about the conflict spreading. “We see a real risk of escalation on the northern border and that is why President Biden has been so clear and so forceful in saying that no state and no group should seek to exploit the situation to their advantage or should escalate the conflict.”

The deployment of the USS Eisenhower from the US to the region is “to give additional capacity to respond to any contingency and also to send a clear message of deterrence that no one should get involved in this, no one should escalate this”, he added.

Sullivan said the Biden administration would seek a new weapons package for Israel and Ukraine, which will be significantly higher than $2bn, and hold intensive talks with US lawmakers.

Sullivan said on CBS’s Face the Nation that the Israel arms package would be “to help Israel defend itself as it fights its terrorist threat”. A second US carrier group is also now confirmed headed to the region.

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A Hamas attack from Gaza saw in fighters kill more than 1,400 people in Israel and has sparked a retaliatory Israeli assault on Gaza. Health officials in the densely packed strip of land said on Sunday that Israel’s response had killed 2,329 Palestinians and injured 9,714. As on the Israeli side, most were civilians.

The purpose of an Israeli incursion into Gaza, Sullivan told CNN, would be at the broadest level to ensure the “safety and security of the state of Israel and the Jewish people” and to “eliminate the Hamas terrorist infrastructure and Hamas terrorist threat”.

Sullivan said he was “not in a position” to give a longer term picture but said the US was talking to Israel about the full set of questions to ensure that “Israel is safe and secure, and also that innocent Palestinians living in Gaza can have a life of dignity, security and peace”.

The return of US hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, Sullivan said, was of “no higher priority” to the administration, despite the intense Israeli bombardment of the territory. US hostage experts have been sent to Israel, and US diplomats are in touch with third parties in the region “to explore avenues for their safe release”.

Pressed on why the US had not used special forces to rescue US hostages, Sullivan confirmed that the US does not have “pinpoint location information” for where they are.

“We have to refine our understanding of where they are, and who they are. We know there are 15 unaccounted-for Americans but we cannot confirm the precise number being held by Hamas,” Sullivan said.

“All we can do is work closely with the Israeli government on hostage recovery options, and work through third countries to see if there are avenues for release,” he added. He said a possible prisoner swap was not currently under discussion.

Pressed on the loss of life in Gaza from the Israeli bombardment and airstrikes, and the cutting off of food, water and electricity supplies, Sullivan said the US was “working actively” to ensure Palestinian access to water, medicine and food, and water had been turned back on to southern Gaza earlier Sunday.

The US, he said, would continue to work with Israel, the UN, Egypt, Jordan and aid groups to make sure innocent Palestinians would have access to basic necessities and “would be protected from bombardment”.

Amid reports that Gaza hospitals are overwhelmed with injured, and without electricity or adequate supplies, Sullivan said the US position is that “hospitals should have power, hospitals should not be targeted, people should have access to life-saving medical care. We do not qualify these statements, nor there is some caveat to them.”

But Sullivan also said that the failure to open the Rafah Gate between Gaza and Egypt to let Americans and foreign nationals out was complicated. “The Egyptians have, in fact, agreed to allow Americans safe passage through the crossing, [and] the Israelis agreed to ensure that area would be safe.”

But when on Saturday the US tried to move a group on Saturday, Sullivan said, “it was actually Hamas taking steps to prevent that from happening. We are doing all that we can to make sure Americans can get across. Secretary Blinken is meeting with the president of Egypt today and this is at the top of his list.”

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