Israel shouldn’t be compared to Russia, Biden admin says, as civilian deaths soar

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The Biden administration rebuked a comparison of Israel to Russia on Monday, as the civilian death toll in the Gaza Strip quickly approaches the number of Ukrainians killed by Moscow since that war began.

On Sunday night, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) called out U.S. officials for what she called their “double standard” of unconditionally supporting Israel in its war against the Hamas militant group while condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

“The United States rightly called out Russia for its siege of Ukraine, rightly called out the attacks on the power infrastructure, the refusal to provide food and water and fuel to the Ukrainians,” Jayapal told NBC’s Meet the Press. “We have to recognize that our credibility and our authority on the moral stage is greatly diminished if we do not also call out this siege that Israel is launching on Gaza.”

It’s been a struggle for humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip, a walled territory with 2.3 million Palestinian residents, since Israel’s widespread retaliation began following Hamas’ surprise attack that killed some 1,400 Israelis on Oct. 7.

At first, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government entirely blocked humanitarian assistance like food, water and medical supplies from entering Gaza. Israel started allowing shipments after a 10-day siege that drew international pressure, though they’ve been delayed since the aid is inspected for potential weapons that Hamas could smuggle in. Israel also faced criticism over the weekend after intense airstrikes caused a communications blackout in Gaza.

Russia has consistently targeted Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, as well as its grain facilities and ports, with airstrikes.

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby pushed back on Jayapal’s comparison, saying that Russia, unlike Israel, deliberately targets Ukrainian civilians as part of Moscow’s war strategy.

“Slaughtering innocent Ukrainians, that’s part of their strategy inside Ukraine. That is not what we’re seeing from Israel,” Kirby said on CNN Monday morning. “Israel is not deliberately trying to kill civilians.”

But Palestinian civilians have been killed, Kirby emphasized.

According to the Gaza Health Ministry, more than 8,000 Palestinians have been killed since Oct. 7. The death toll doesn’t differentiate between civilian and militant deaths, but the health ministry said it’s composed mostly of women and children.

Last week, President Joe Biden said he couldn’t be sure that civilians had been killed by Israel because he didn’t trust statistics provided by the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. He later told Muslim leaders that his comments were about Hamas not being reliable and weren’t meant to minimize the deaths, POLITICO reported.

Israel is aiming for Hamas fighters, Kirby said, and Washington continues to urge Israel to minimize the impact on civilians.

“We want to make sure they do it in a cautious, careful, deliberate way, but it is not a war aim of Israel to kill innocent civilians the way it is a war aim of Vladimir Putin to do that in Ukraine,” Kirby added.

The debate is playing out as House Republicans are looking to move forward with a bill to provide $14.5 billion in aid to Israel. That breaks from Biden’s attempt to tie Israel and Ukraine aid together, a move that Speaker Mike Johnson opposes.

In Ukraine, Russia has killed about 9,600 civilians since the war began in February 2022, according to a Human Rights Watch report last month.

One main difference between the two, Kirby and other experts POLITICO spoke with pointed out, is that Hamas is believed to be holding over 200 civilians hostage.

“Directly targeting civilians is a war crime, targeting the enemy with a flagrant disregard for civilians is a war crime, hiding among civilians as a combatant effectively using them as human shields — especially those that are hostages — is a war crime,” said Mick Mulroy, formerly a top Pentagon official for the Middle East.

Maksym Skrypchenko, president of the Ukrainian think tank Transatlantic Dialogue Center, compared Israel’s battle against Hamas to Ukraine combatting Russian troops in the early weeks of its war.

“In this conflict, Israel is rightly seen as the victim, subjected to barbarous Hamas terror attacks involving missile strikes, hostage-taking, and violence targeting Israeli civilians,” he said. “The blame lies squarely with the Hamas terrorists, not with Israel.”

Biden has positioned himself as an ardent supporter of Israel since the Hamas attacks, traveling to the nation to meet with Netanyahu and underscore the strength of the alliance.

The trip was a risk that may not play out in Biden’s favor, said Natasha Hall, a senior fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“As the ground invasion begins, more will die. Even when the dust settles, people will be looking to the U.S. to see what they will do to use the leverage they have as a staunch supporter of Israel to put the country toward a path [that’s] sustainable,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.