U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin talks with his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv, Oct. 13, 2023.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin talks with his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv, Oct. 13, 2023. (Twitter/U.S. Secretary of Defense)

Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza pits the country against an enemy worse than the Islamic State and peace in the Middle East hinges on international isolation of the Palestinian terrorist group, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Friday in Tel Aviv.

“This is no time for neutrality, or for false equivalence, or for excuses for the inexcusable,” Austin said alongside top Israeli officials.

During an exchange with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Austin referred to his time as head of U.S. Central Command, when American forces were waging a campaign against ISIS. Hamas “takes evil to another level,” Austin said.

Israeli officials now have deemed Hamas the “ISIS of Gaza.”

The Pentagon chief’s comments come as Israel prepares to launch a ground offensive into Gaza.

“Those who want to survive, please go south,” Israel’s defense secretary, Yoav Gallant, said during a news briefing with Austin, adding that the country’s forces are preparing to demolish all Hamas targets in Gaza.

The looming operation has raised concerns about what impact the offensive will have on noncombatants in densely populated Gaza.

Hamas’ track record of blending together with civilians also complicates any attack.

The scale of the devastation brought on by Israel’s retaliatory strikes, as well as cutting Gaza’s water and electricity supplies, also has ratcheted up fears of a larger humanitarian disaster.

Numerous Muslim countries in the region along with some humanitarian groups have said that Israel isn’t doing enough to ensure the welfare of civilians in Gaza. The situation also has sparked divisions around the world, with pro-Palestinian protests taking place in scores of cities.

Austin, however, said the blame for the current situation lies squarely with Hamas.

“The United States will make sure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself. And Israel has a right to protect its people,” he said.

Austin said he was confident that Israel would do its best to avoid civilian casualties, in contrast to “terrorists like Hamas (who) deliberately target civilians.”

Still, Austin said he was prepared to share lessons learned during the U.S. battle against ISIS several years ago and how it established humanitarian corridors as a way to minimize civilian casualties.

That campaign also was marked by barbaric attacks by ISIS, which took women as hostages and sex slaves and broadcasted the beheadings of Westerners in gruesome public displays.

During Hamas’ blitz into Israel over the weekend, similar tactics were used as the militants took scores of people hostage at a musical festival, beheaded babies and slaughtered whole families.

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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