Austin travels to Israel on Friday as military aid arrives, including US personnel to help get hostages back
Stars and Stripes October 12, 2023
WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will travel to Israel to speak with top officials there, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, about military aid and plans for fighting Hamas militants and securing the release of American hostages, a Pentagon official said Thursday.
Austin will travel from Belgium to Israel on Friday to meet with Netanyahu and top Israeli military leaders, a senior U.S. defense official said speaking on condition of anonymity. The defense secretary has been in Brussels this week for a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group to discuss military aid for Ukraine’s war effort against invading Russian forces.
“During Secretary Austin’s visit, he will underscore unwavering commitment to Israel’s security,” the defense official said, adding the American and Israeli leaders will discuss military planning and the primary objectives in battling Hamas, which has long been designated a terrorist organization by the United States.
Hamas militants launched a surprise attack from the Gaza Strip last weekend on Israel. Thousands of people have since been killed in the fighting and Hamas has taken an estimated 150 hostages, including some Americans. The defense official said U.S. advisers are working with Israeli authorities to help get the hostages released.
“We are providing advice and consultations to the Israeli Defense Forces on hostage recovery efforts. This is a high priority,” the official said. “There are personnel on the ground … and that includes [U.S.] military personnel advising and consulting on hostage recovery.”
Austin and President Joe Biden have pledged to send Israel military aid to help fight the Hamas militants in Gaza, a small swath of land along the Mediterranean Sea that borders Israel and Egypt. Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world with more than 2.3 million people.
“Our support for Israel is rock solid,” Austin said in Brussels on Thursday during a meeting of NATO defense ministers. “We are working urgently to get Israel what it needs to defend itself.”
Since the Hamas attack, the Israeli forces have been bombarding Gaza. The senior U.S. defense official said the first tranches of military aid to Israel have arrived, including missiles for the country’s sophisticated air-defense system called Iron Dome.
“The first shipment of our military aid, including munitions, arrived earlier this week. We fully expect to see continuous delivery of U.S. security assistance … in response to [Israeli] requests,” the official said.
The United States is also working to send Joint Direct Attack Munitions kits, or JDAMS, as well as small-diameter bombs and various types of ammunition, the official said. The JDAM kits convert ordinary bombs into precision-guided “smart” bombs.
The USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier strike group arrived in the Mediterranean a couple of days ago and a squadron of Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt ground-attack aircraft began arriving Thursday, according to the defense official. The planes are positioned to support Israel’s defense and deter any other country or group in the region from escalating or adding to the conflict, the official said. Social media posts on Thursday by the U.S. 5th Fleet also showed multiple F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets taking off during operations in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“We have deployed a massive amount of force to make very clear that the United States stands with Israel, and to send a strong message to [other countries and groups] who would even be considering escalating this conflict,” the defense official said. “It is very important for these leaders and these groups to understand the full capability of the U.S. military we have put in the Eastern Mediterranean.”
Pentagon officials have said more aid to Israel and further moves of U.S. military assets in the region are expected in the coming week, but they dismissed any concern that American forces and equipment might be spread too thin given the conflicts in Israel and Ukraine, where Biden has committed more than $44 billion in equipment since the Russian invasion in early 2022.
“Put simply, we are the strongest nation in the world with the most combat-credible military. We are capable of supporting Ukraine and Israel in their hours of need,” the defense official said. “We feel that we can and must do both. The cost of inaction would be much higher.”
“The United States can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Austin said.