U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin tells Israel PM Netanyahu ‘we have your back’

The Defence Secretary’s quick trip to Israel came a day after Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in the region.

Updated - October 13, 2023 07:50 pm IST

Published - October 13, 2023 03:39 pm IST - Tel Aviv

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin meets Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on October 13, 2023. Photo: X/@IsraeliPM via ANI

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin meets Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on October 13, 2023. Photo: X/@IsraeliPM via ANI

U.S. Defence 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.

Mr. 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 Defence Secretary’s quick trip to Israel from Brussels, where he was attending a NATO Defence Ministers meeting, came a day after Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in the region. Mr. 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, Mr. 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. Mr. 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, Mr. Austin met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reassuring him, “As the president said, we have your back.” He added, “We do stand with you, Mr. Prime Minister.”

Defence officials travelling with Mr. 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., Mr. Gallant said.

A senior defence 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.

Mr. Austin has spoken nearly daily with Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. Biden told CBS’ “60 Minutes” that he would speak on October 13 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,” Mr. 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.”

Blinken meets Abbad in Jordan

A day after visiting Israel to offer the Biden administration’s diplomatic support in person, Mr. Blinken was in Jordan on October 13 and held talks with Jordanian King Abdullah II. They did not speak to reporters after the meeting. Mr. 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.

Mr. Blinken discussed Hamas 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 Mr. Abbas, Mr. Blinken stressed many of the same points and took care to express condolences for the loss of Palestinian civilian lives, Mr. Miller said.

Mr. 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”, Mr. Miller said.

The monarch rules over a country with a large Palestinian population and has a vested interest in their status while Mr. Abbas runs the Palestinian Authority that controls the West Bank.

According to a palace statement, King 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.

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