Visiting US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in Tel Aviv on Friday that he believes the Hamas terror group’s activities are worse than what he witnessed carried out by the notorious Islamic State terror group a decade ago.
Arriving in the country as an ongoing show of US military and diplomatic support for Israel amid its war with Gaza, Austin held meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and a range of senior IDF officials.
Meeting with Netanyahu, Austin told the Israeli leader that “we’re with you, Mr. Prime Minister, and as the president said, we have your back.”
“It’s an awful week,” he added, noting the “disgusting acts by this terrorist group.”
Austin, who served as the commander of CENTCOM, the US forces in the Middle East, from 2013-2016, told Netanyahu that “as you know, I was the guy that initially put the ISIS campaign together and I know a lot about ISIS, and this is worse than what I saw with ISIS.”
The US Pentagon chief later gave a joint press conference alongside Gallant in Tel Aviv, during which he stressed the ongoing military aid being provided to Israel to aid in its battle against Hamas.
Austin said the Pentagon is already sending “munitions, air defense capabilities and other equipment resources” as well as additional “interceptors for Iron Dome, to save Israeli lives.”
Gallant thanked Austin and the United States for the support, noting that a second aircraft carrying US munitions for the IDF was slated to land Friday.
“Mr. Secretary, when you said that you stand with Israel, you showed up,” Gallant said. “You have shown us what it means to be an ally, to be a friend, to be a brother.”
The Israeli defense minister said that support from “the Pentagon, the White House, Congress, ensures [our] freedom of operation and enforces our capabilities… US deployment of assets on land and in air and at sea sends a strong message to our partners and enemies in the region.”
Austin said his presence in the region as well as the shipments of munitions and repositioning of US warships were all intended to send the message that “the United States will make sure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself.”
“This is no time for neutrality, or for false equivalence, or for excuses for the inexcusable,” Austin said. “There is never any justification for terrorism. And that’s especially true of this rampage by Hamas.”
In a not-so veiled threat to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Austin echoed comments made earlier this week by US President Joe Biden, saying that “to any country, or any group or anyone trying to take advantage of this atrocity… we have just one word: Don’t.”
Asked by a reporter if the US would consider sending troops to fight on an additional front against Hezbollah, Austin said, “I won’t speculate on anything that could happen in the future.” He added: “Make no mistake, the United States will make sure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself.”
The defense secretary also said that US officials “will continue to coordinate closely with Israel to help secure the release of the innocent men, women and children in the clutches of Hamas, including American citizens.”
Biden said Friday that he intends to hold a Zoom discussion with the families of US citizens believed to be held captive by Hamas in Gaza. US State Department Deputy Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs Steve Gillen — who traveled to Israel with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week — is currently staying in the country to oversee such efforts.
Asked about concerns over civilian casualties in Gaza from Israeli airstrikes, Austin said only that “Israel has a right to defend itself… I’ve worked with Israeli forces for many years, my experience is that they’re professional, they’re disciplined and they’re focused on the right things.”
“This is a time for resolve and not revenge, for purpose and not panic, and for security and not surrender,” he said.
The death toll in Israel since Hamas’s murderous onslaught began on October 7 has surpassed 1,300, the vast majority of them civilians, as authorities and volunteers continue to work to locate and identify human remains of those slaughtered in Gaza border towns by the terrorists.
The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said 1,537 Palestinians had been killed and another 6,612 wounded in Israeli airstrikes in the Strip since fighting began on October 7. It did not differentiate between members of armed groups and civilians. Israel said it is targeting terrorist infrastructure and all areas where Hamas operates or hides and that Israeli forces have killed some 1,500 Hamas terrorists who infiltrated into its territory since Saturday. PJC