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Biden admin says getting Americans out of Gaza is a key focus, but timeline is unclear


President Biden has been clear. He believes the United States must continue to support Ukraine and Israel. Today, the White House asked Congress to approve tens of billions of additional dollars for these conflicts. But before any of that aid can arrive in Eastern Europe or the Middle East, we also have questions about what the U.S. can do now as the humanitarian situation in Gaza continues to unravel.

John Kirby is a spokesman with the White House National Security Council, and he's here to answer some of our questions. And, sir, it is good to have you with us.

JOHN KIRBY: Thank you so much for having me.

KHALID: So if I may begin actually with news today that two American citizens who are being held hostage by Hamas have been released. President Biden has issued a statement saying that his administration has been working around the clock to free American hostages. What can you tell us about how many people are still being held?

KIRBY: Well, Hamas claims that there's, you know, dozens if not a couple of hundred. I think the Israeli Defense Force has roughly an estimate of a couple hundred as well. We don't know exactly what the total population is. We do know that there are additional American hostages being held. We don't think there's very many, but one is too many. And we want them all, not just the Americans, all hostages released immediately. And we continue to work on securing the release of additional Americans.

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KHALID: There are also still American citizens in Gaza trying to leave. And one family that NPR has been in touch with told us that they no longer have fresh drinking water, that they have been drinking seawater. So what is the timeline for families like this, American families to be able to get out of Gaza?

KIRBY: We're working on that very, very hard. As you know, we've appointed a special envoy, David Satterfield. He's in the region right now. And his whole purpose is to, again, work on the humanitarian issue. That is including finding a way to get American citizens out of Gaza, get them out safely, efficiently get them to safety. And so we are working that very, very hard.

KHALID: No timeline - yeah.

KIRBY: I wish I could give you a day on the calendar, but I can't right now other than to say it's a key focus for President Biden and the rest of the team.

KHALID: May I ask, what has been the holdup so far?

KIRBY: Well, there's lots of reasons why it's been difficult. There are - you know, Egypt has expressed security concerns about opening up the gate to people coming out. Certainly, there have been concerns on the Israeli side of Hamas being able to take advantage of that. We understand those concerns. They're valid concerns, of course, and that's why Mr. Satterfield is in there working with Israel, working with Egypt to find a way to get those Americans out of the country. We know they want to go. We want to get them to safety. We're not going to stop. We're not going to relent. We'll work this very, very hard.

It is just as - it's also important that we continue to work to get humanitarian assistance in. As you know, there are some aid trucks that are waiting to get in. The Egyptians are repairing the road at the Rafah gate, which has been severely damaged and needs repairs. And we're hoping that in coming hours and days that that aid will start getting in to the people of Gaza who desperately need it.

KHALID: Certainly important. So if I can shift gears, I know that the funding request that was announced today includes lots of money for Ukraine and Israel, but there's also money for some Republican priorities like beefing up operations on the southern border. Will that help get this through Congress? Do you see this as an incentive to tie this all together?

KIRBY: The president submitted that supplemental in the way that he did for all those different purposes, including Indo-Pacific security, because they're all important to our national security. They're all important to the American people. And he wants Congress to treat them all accordingly and to work with us to get that legislation drafted and passed so that we can get the kinds of resources that the Ukrainians need, that the Israelis are going to need and that our Border Patrol agents on the border desperately need as well.

KHALID: All right. That's National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby. Thank you so much for taking the time.

KIRBY: Yes, ma'am. Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.