The following is a transcript of an interview with Secretary of State Antony Blinken that aired on Oct. 22, 2023.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We go now to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is at the State Department. Good morning to you, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY OF STATE ANTONY BLINKEN: Morning, Margaret, good to be with you.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Tension is very high in the region. Are you changing your security posture? Are you pulling any US personnel out of the area?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Margaret, we are concerned at the possibility of Iranian proxies, escalating their attacks against our own personnel, our own people. We’re taking every measure to make sure that we can defend them and if necessary, respond decisively. Not at all what we’re looking for, not all we want, but we’ll be prepared, if that’s what they choose to do.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So it sounds like quite possibly pulling people out. In terms of the threat from Iran, you just referenced there, President Biden in his Oval Office address said that the U.S. would hold Iran accountable. What does accountable mean?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, what you’ve seen already, Margaret is very- a very clear message from the President, backed up by the deployment of two of our largest aircraft carrier battle groups, to make sure that it’s clear. No one should take advantage of this moment to escalate to further attacks on Israel or for that matter attacks on us, on our personnel. And this is not by way of, in terms of what we’re doing by provocation, it’s designed to deter, designed to make clear that no one should use this moment in any way to escalate. No one wants a second front, a third front, and at the same time, we want to make sure that our own people in the region, wherever they are, are safe and protected, and that we’re in a place as we are to respond decisively if we need to. The President’s been clear about that, both in what he said and in what we’re doing.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We’ll stay tuned. In terms of what’s happening in Gaza. I know there are an estimated 500-600 Americans there. There are only two ways out. One is through the Rafah gate to Egypt. It does not appear any Americans have made it out that way. There’s also another Erez Crossing into Israel. Is there any chance Israel lets some of those Americans out or Egypt allows some of those Americans in?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We have- you’re exactly right. We have several hundred Americans and other nationalities, other civilians from- from other countries who want to leave Gaza. We’ve had people come to Rafah, the crossing with Egypt. And to date, at least, Hamas has blocked them from leaving, showing once again, its total disregard for civilians of any kind who are- who are stuck in Gaza. This is something that we’re working, again, virtually every single day. We have in the- right now in the region on the ground, one of our most experienced diplomats, David Satterfield, working with the different governments concerned with- with Israel, with Egypt, to make sure that we’re ready to be able to get people out, assuming Hamas lets them move. So really, the ball is in Hamas’ court, in terms of letting people who want to leave, civilians from third countries including Americans get out of Gaza.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Just to be clear, you’re saying Hamas is preventing Americans from leaving Gaza?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s correct.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And there are no US personnel who are able to help on the ground?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We have U.S. personnel on the other side of the border in Egypt, consular personnel who can immediately help and assist those Americans who want to leave. We’re working this very, very actively every day, including with partners who may have influenced connections with Hamas that we don’t have, to make sure that people can get out. So we’re tracking this. We want to make sure it happens.
MARGARET BRENNAN: In terms of the Americans who are believed to be unaccounted for or potentially hostages. Does Hamas have all of them or do other militant groups have them?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, you’ll understand I can’t speak to the – to the details of this. We’ve been engaged from virtually the first day of this. I don’t want to be clear when it was clear that Hamas had taken men, women, young children, elderly people hostage, including Americans. It was really gratifying. Yesterday, I got a chance to speak to the two Americans, the mother, daughter, Judith and Natalie Raanan, who were released. I spoke to them. We are very appreciative of the assistance that we got from the Government of Qatar, to make sure that they could get out and now soon be reunited with their families. We’re hopeful that- that others follow. It is imperative that every single hostage, every single hostage of whatever nationality, be released immediately and without condition.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But the Israeli invasion appears imminent. Have you asked the Israeli government to delay in order to give you more time to broker the release of these hostages?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: First, step back for a second, because it’s important to remember what happened. It’s incredible how quickly that gets lost because it was only a couple of weeks ago that Hamas invaded Israel with its terrorist fighters and slaughtered – and I use that- that word very deliberately- slaughtered so many people again, men, women, young children, babies, old people, you name it. And they continue to rain rockets down on Israel when I was there. A few days ago, we were in the bomb – we were- we had to take shelter a couple of times, because of incoming rockets from Hamas. So, my point is this, no country- no country can be expected to tolerate this, to live with this. And as we said, from the start, Israel has both the the right and even the obligation, not only to defend itself, but to try to make sure that, to the best of its ability, this can’t happen again. So, we talked to the Israelis about what they’re- what they’re planning. We give them our best advice. It’s important, as we said, not only what they do, but how they do it, particularly when it comes to making sure that civilians are as protected as they possibly can be in this crossfire of Hamas’ making. We want to make sure that humanitarian assistance gets in and both countries care deeply about the- the hostages. There are many, many Israelis who are hostage and of course, hostages from other nationalities. So we’re working to do everything we can, using whatever levers, partnerships, relationships, we have to get them out. Israel is doing the same. But in terms of what we’re talking to Israel about in their- with regard to their military operations, it really is focused on both how they do it, and how best to achieve the results that they seek.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So, let’s talk about how they do it. You’re right to lay out just how absolutely horrific that attack was two weeks ago. Turning the page to what has happened during the following two weeks, UNICEF says 1,524 children have been killed in the Gaza Strip during these bombings. Why isn’t the US calling for at least a temporary ceasefire?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: First, Margaret, when I hear the stories, when I see the pictures of young children, who have lost their lives in this conflict of Hamas’ making- whoever they are, wherever they are, whether they’re Palestinians, whether they’re Israelis, whether they’re- they’re Jews or Muslims. It hits me, and I know it hits virtually everyone right in the heart. And that’s why it’s so important to do everything possible to protect them, and why it’s so important to do everything possible to get assistance to those who need it. Food, medicine, water-
MARGARET BRENNAN: So why not ask for at least a temporary pause in the bombing–
MARGARET BRENNAN: — as was proposed at the UN this week?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We’ve seen first of all that, in order to get assistance in. We’ve had, we’ve had that happen. And you saw the first 20 trucks go in yesterday, I expect more will follow today and the day after that. We want to make sure that we have sustained delivery of food, medicine, water, the things that people need. At the same time, I said something a minute ago that- that we have to- we have to remember. Israel has to do everything it can to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Freezing things in place where they are now would allow Hamas to remain where it is and to repeat what it’s done sometime in the future. No country could accept that.
MARGARET BRENNAN: One of my colleagues, who is on the ground in Israel and has traveled to the West Bank conducted an interview with Mr. Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian politician, I’m sure, you know. He said he doesn’t understand why President Biden, when he was in Israel, did not say “enough is enough. You wanted to respond and you responded, you killed 4,000 Palestinians. Stop.” Instead, you’re encouraging a ground invasion. How do you respond to “enough is enough?”
SECRETARY BLINKEN: “Enough is enough” should have been the case with- with Hamas two weeks ago. It would be good to hear the entire world speaking clearly, and with one voice, about the actions that Hamas took, about the slaughter of people, about the fact that that should be absolutely intolerable, unacceptable to anyone, anywhere, any country, any people. Second, as I said, for- for a country to not only not respond- it’s not about responding. It’s not about retaliating. It’s about defending Israel from these ongoing attacks. As I said, the rockets continue to this day. And it’s about taking the steps necessary to try to make sure, to the best of Israel’s ability, that this can’t happen again. Now, as we said, very clearly, the President’s been very clear about this- how Israel does that matters. Making sure that to the greatest extent possible civilians are protected. Civilians are deliberately put in the crossfire by Hamas. Hamas undertook the slaughter. It knew Israel would have to respond and yet all of its people, its senior leaders, its weapons, its tunnels, all are co-located in residential buildings. They’re buried underneath hospitals and schools. It knew that in Israel’s necessary response, civilians would be caught in that crossfire. It’s the last thing we want to see. It’s imperative that every step be taken to protect them. But what does anyone expect Israel to do? It can’t allow the situation to continue. No country can live like that. So that’s what’s- I think, in the minds of Israelis right now. Again, we’re speaking to them, as I said, about how they do it, and also how they can best achieve the results that they seek.
MARGARET BRENNAN: In terms of US interests in the region, one of America’s closest allies, the King of Jordan, gave an impassioned speech saying “Palestinian lives seem to matter less than Israeli ones. Our lives matter less than other lives, the application of international law is optional and human rights appear to have boundaries based on races and religions.” That’s a warning from one of America’s closest friends in the region, that this is a dangerous message to be sending and it could have blowback. Are you concerned?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Margaret, every life- Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, Muslim, Arab, every life has equal worth. When I see the reports, when I see the photographs, when I hear the stories of young children, Palestinian children, who’ve been killed or injured, it hits me right in the gut too. Just as it does, when I hear- when I see these other stories, wherever it is. We had, here in our own country, a little boy, six-years-old, Wadea, in Chicago, who was viciously murdered, apparently, because he was Palestinian American. A little boy, six-years-old, didn’t do anything to anyone. I feel that strongly across the board, no matter where it is. But this is on Hamas. And the fact is, Hamas doesn’t represent the Palestinian people. It doesn’t represent their just cause, it doesn’t represent their aspiration, and legitimate aspiration for a state of their own. On the contrary, it does everything to make life worse, and more miserable for–
MARGARET BRENNAN: Does the US assess that it is actually possible for Israel to destroy both Hamas as an entity and its ideology. Is it actually a military possibility?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So, you make a very good point, Margaret. And I think it’s important to focus on that, too. There’s the military aspect of what Israel needs to do and try it- and try to make sure this doesn’t happen again. But you’re exactly right. The best way, the only way to defeat an ideology, no matter how warped, and the case of Hamas, it’s about as warped as it possibly can be, is to make sure that there is a better, a clearer alternative for people. And that alternative is very clear. And it’s very stark. We have on the one hand, countries throughout the region who want to come together, to integrate, to normalize relations, and to lift up the rights of the Palestinian people, to be able to have a future where they work together, go to school together, do business together, travel to each other’s countries. That’s one vision. The other vision is the vision that Hamas has: death, destruction, nihilism, darkness. Now, the responsibility that those of us who believe in the first vision have is to do everything possible to make it real, so that people not only see it, but they can achieve it. That’s exactly what we were working on before this horrific attack on October 7th. And that’s the vision that we need to get back to. But at the same time, we also have to deal with the fact that Hamas represents an active, ongoing threat, and that has to be dealt with too.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Secretary, thank you for your time this morning.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Margaret.