In an interview with senior journalist Rohit Sharma, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel reiterated that US commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad, and the United States is doing everything it can to support the Israeli government and ensure it has what it needs to protect and defend itself.
Rohit Sharma (RS) – People back home in India wanted to hear from somebody who was in the administration, so, thank you so much for doing this. I want to start from Saturday, October 7, when the Palestinian group Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel on an unprecedented scale, firing thousands of rockets and infiltrating militants into Israeli territory. According to your assessment, how did it happen despite Israel having built the best intelligence and then, on top of it, you know, supported by the US and US intelligence?
Vedant Patel (VP)-So there’s going to be plenty of time to look back at how this came together and how this attack was executed. What’s more important, though, is that we, of course, have a timely and appropriate intelligence sharing with partners in the region and, more importantly, our commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad. And we’re continuing to work around the clock with our partners in Israel to ensure they have what they need to defend themselves. The first tranche of security assistance is on its way over, and we’ll continue to assess and work directly with the Government of Israel to determine what they need.
RS- Okay, so there are obviously mounting questions over the massive intelligence failure. And these were compounded on Monday when an Egyptian intelligence official said that Jerusalem had ignored warnings that the Gaza-based terrorist group was planning something big. What can you tell us about that? Have you been able to, you know, talk to Egyptian counterparts as to how you confirm some of those findings?
VP- I’ve not seen those reports. And I’m certainly not going to get into the specifics of intelligence sharing and how that works, but what I can say is that we, of course, have a robust security partnership with Israel. We have a robust intelligence-sharing partnership. And again, there will be a time and place to look at how these attacks came together and how they were executed. Right now, our priority remains squarely focused on supporting the Government of Israel and ensuring it has everything it needs to defend itself, supporting American citizens and the families of impacted American citizens in the region, and sending a clear message to other malign actors in the region that they should not use this as an opportunity to further attack Israel in this time.
RS- What is the latest information on the situation in Israel, given recent reports of the casualties? We’ve talked about American citizens being held hostage. What’s the latest that you have that you can provide us with?
VP– So, unfortunately, we’ve been able to confirm that at least 13 American citizens have, unfortunately, lost their lives in these tragic terrorist attacks. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been injured. Many lives have been lost. Also, there continue to be a number of American citizens who are unaccounted for, and we’re working around the clock with the Government of Israel to determine their whereabouts, their status, as well as how it might possibly relate to the number of civilians who’ve been abducted by Hamas as well.
RS- Okay. We saw these reports today about the horrifying incident involving the beheading of babies by Hamas. Can you confirm or provide details on this event? What is the US government’s response to such a heinous act?
VP- I’m not going to respond or speak to specific acts. But let me just be incredibly clear about something. Hamas is a terrorist group. It’s a terrorist organization. Over the weekend, they conducted what was one of the worst terrorist attacks on one of our most important partners, Israel, and so the United States is doing everything it can to support the Israeli government to make sure it has what it needs to protect and defend itself.
RS- The Hamas spokesperson, Ibrahim Ahmed, said on Al Jazeera that the attack is absolutely a message to Muslim countries seeking normalization with Israel, and they should “absolve themselves of this great shame.” Does this mean that the situation may deteriorate further?
VP- Let’s not let’s not try to normalize what Hamas is saying. Let me just be incredibly clear that there is never any justification for terrorism, especially this kind of terrorism. There’s no justification to kidnap and take civilians hostage. There’s no justification to target civilians, the Israelis, and American citizens who have been impacted by this. Their fathers, their mothers, their sons, their daughters, they were people just attending a concert to give an example. So there is absolutely no justification for this kind of activity.
RS- Another Israeli officer has gone on record to say this is our 9/11, you know, they got us, and somebody else also compared this to the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. How does the US see this attack?
VP- Again, I’ve been pretty clear this is one of the most egregious terrorist attacks that we’ve seen on Israel. We’re doing everything we can to support our Israeli partners, and we’ll continue to do so. Israel has every right to defend itself, and our commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad.
RS– And this is a question that is probably very important, especially for a country like India. These raids from Hamas show that large-scale implantation is possible, even in the face of the world’s most advanced surveillance technology. What are the lessons for countries that face large-scale attacks across land borders?
VP– Look, let me just broadly say that it is, of course, important to be vigilant against terrorism, and we’re working with countries around the world to do so. We have important counterterrorism and security partnerships with a number of countries around the world, including India, of course. But again, to bring this back down to the events of this weekend, we are focused on supporting the government of Israel, supporting and doing everything we can to make sure they have what it takes and what they need to defend themselves.
RS- We have seen a report in the Wall Street Journal about Iran and the role that it could have played in this attack. Yesterday, John Kirby said that that hasn’t been corroborated by the US or the Israelis. Are there indicators to say that Iran could have been involved in this?
VP– So look, this specific reporting that we’ve seen that Iran could have played a specific role and hand in this attack, we’ve not seen anything to corroborate that information, and our partners have said the same thing. But let me be very clear: Iran is one of the biggest exporters of terrorism around the world. They have a long history of supporting and funding groups like Hamas, and so they, of course, are complicit in this. But the United States will continue to take steps and do everything it can to hold Iran accountable through our sanctions regime through other steps. And that will continue to be the case.
RS- White House administration officials who briefed the elected representative on the hill said that this could be a long-drawn war that could probably go on for some days, if not weeks, or maybe weeks, if not months. How do you see this? This is a deeply complex issue, with civilians suffering on both sides. Are there any diplomatic efforts that you can speak to or initiatives that the US is pursuing?
VP– I’m not going to speculate on the timeline. Right now, our focus is on supporting our Israeli partners. They have every right to defend themselves and to defend their security from these terrorist attacks, and the terrorists who conducted these tests need to be held accountable.
RS- The Saudis and Israelis are in the process of negotiating a peace agreement. With these attacks, is there a risk of this effort derailing between the Saudis and Israelis?
VP– Look, here’s what we do know. A normalization of diplomatic relations in the region could be a good thing. It could be a transformative thing. But right now, our focus is squarely on supporting Israel, and I’m not going to get ahead of this process.
Rohit Sharma is a Senior Journalist who has lived in Washington DC since 2007. He currently is a contributor to Dainik Bhaskar, the world's third largest newspaper by readership. His opinion pieces feature on News 9 and The Quint. He has been invited as guest on the BBC, NDTV, India Today, AajTak, Times Now, Republic, Zee news and others. His work has featured in six Indian Languages.