US Defense Secretary Austin tells Israel’s Netanyahu ‘we have your back’ after the attack by Hamas

The second high-level official sent by President Joe Biden didn’t criticize the Israeli leaders’ demand that 1 million civilians evacuate northern Gaza, and said Israel has the right to defend itself

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks to the press after the NATO Defense Ministers Council at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, October 12, 2023.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks to the press after the NATO Defense Ministers Council at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, October 12, 2023.OLIVIER MATTHYS (EFE)

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Israeli leaders that “we have your back” as he reaffirmed U.S. support in the first week of their war against the militant Hamas group. He voiced little public criticism of their stunning demand that some 1 million civilians evacuate northern Gaza.

Austin, the second high-level U.S. official sent by President Joe Biden to visit Israel in two days, was seeing firsthand some of the weapons and security assistance that Washington rapidly delivered to Israel after it was attacked. He stressed that “this is a time for resolve and not revenge, for purpose and not panic and for security and not surrender.”

The defense secretary’s quick trip to Israel from Brussels, where he was attending a NATO defense ministers meeting, came a day after Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in the region. Blinken is continuing the frantic Mideast diplomacy, seeking to avert an expanded regional conflict.

The Israeli military directed Gaza City residents to evacuate “for their own safety and protection,” ahead of a feared Israeli ground offensive. Gaza’s Hamas rulers responded by calling on Palestinians to “remain steadfast in your homes and to stand firm” against Israel.

Asked about the likelihood of civilian casualties in Gaza, Austin said Israel has the right to defend itself and added that he has worked with Israeli forces over the years, when he was in the military. “They are professional, they are disciplined and they are focused on the right things,” he told reporters, after meeting for nearly two hours with Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant and the Israeli War Cabinet.

Gallant did not answer a question about whether his forces will give civilians just 24 hours to leave Gaza. But he said those who want to save their lives must “go south.” Before the press conference, Austin met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reassuring the prime, “As the president said, we have your back.” He added, “We do stand with you, Mr. Prime Minister.”

Defense officials traveling with Austin said he wants to underscore America’s unwavering support for the people of Israel and commitment to making sure the country has what it needs to defend itself. A second shipment of arms was arriving Friday as well from the U.S., Gallant said. A senior defense official said the U.S. has already given Israel small diameter bombs as well as interceptor missiles for its Iron Dome system and more will be delivered.

Austin has spoken nearly daily with Gallant and has directed the rapid shift of U.S. ships, intelligence support and other assets to Israel and the region. Within hours after the brutal Hamas attack across the border into Israel, the U.S. moved warships and aircraft to the region.

The USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier strike group is already in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and a second carrier was departing Friday from Virginia, also heading to the region. Austin declined to say if the U.S. is doing surveillance flights in the region, but the U.S. is providing intelligence and other planning assistance to the Israelis, including advice on the hostage situation.

Biden told CBS’ “60 Minutes” that he would speak Friday to families of U.S. hostages held by Hamas. “They have to know that the president of the United States of America cares deeply about what’s happening. Deeply,” Biden said. “We have to communicate to the world this is critical. This is not even human behavior. It’s pure barbarism. And we’re going to do everything in our power to get them home if we can find them.”

A day after visiting Israel to offer the Biden administration’s diplomatic support in person, Blinken was in Jordan on Friday and held talks with Jordanian King Abdullah II. They did not speak to reporters after the meeting. Blinken then went on to a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has a home in Amman, the Jordanian capital, before leaving for Qatar.

Blinken discussed Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack with the king and efforts to release all hostages the militants seized, as well as efforts to “prevent the conflict from widening,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said. In his meeting with Abbas, Blinken stressed many of the same points and took care to express condolences for the loss of Palestinian civilian lives, Miller said.

Blinken also “thanked President Abbas and his team for their work to further calm the situation for the benefit of Palestinians, Israelis, and the tens of thousands of Americans who also call the West Bank home,” the spokesman said.

The U.S. top diplomat “underscored that Hamas does not stand for the Palestinian people’s right to dignity and self-determination and discussed ways to address the humanitarian needs of civilians in Gaza while Israel conducts legitimate security operations to defend itself from terrorism,” Miller said.

The monarch rules over a country with a large Palestinian population and has a vested interest in their status while Abbas runs the Palestinian Authority that controls the West Bank. According to a palace statement, Abdullah stressed the need to open humanitarian corridors for medical aid and relief into Gaza while protecting civilians and working to end the escalation of the conflict.

He appealed against hindering the work of international agencies and warned against any attempts to forcibly displace Palestinians from Gaza and elsewhere or to cause their internal displacement.

Earlier on Friday, Israel’s military had told some 1 million Palestinians living in Gaza to evacuate the north, according to the United Nations — an unprecedented order for almost half the population of the sealed-off territory ahead an expected ground invasion by Israel against the ruling Hamas.

The king also urged for the protection of innocent civilians on all sides, in line with shared human values, international law and international humanitarian law.

In Doha, Qatar’s capital, Blinken is to meet later Friday with Qatari officials who have close contacts with the Hamas leadership and have been exploring an exchange of Palestinian prisoners in Israel for the release of dozens of Israelis and foreigners taken hostage by Hamas during the militants’ unprecedented incursion into southern Israel last weekend.

Blinken will make a brief stop in Bahrain and end the day in Saudi Arabia, a key player in the Arab world that has been considering normalizing ties with Israel, a U.S.-mediated process that is now on hold. He will also travel to the United Arab Emirates and Egypt over the weekend.

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