TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin assured Israel that “we have your back” as he and America’s top diplomat met Friday with Israeli and Arab leaders. There was no indication the U.S. was trying to prevent an expected Israeli ground offensive into Gaza that could worsen a humanitarian crisis for the 2.3 million Palestinians trapped in the blockaded territory.
The visits to the Middle East by Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken came as Israel escalated its war against Hamas militants in response to their shocking and brutal rampage last weekend.
Israel demanded Friday that some 1 million civilians evacuate northern Gaza for their own safety in anticipation of the expected invasion. Palestinians did indeed begin a mass exodus toward the southern part of the besieged territory even as Hamas dismissed the evacuation as a ploy and the U.N. warned of potentially disastrous consequences of so many people fleeing.
President Joe Biden noted the priority of aiding those trapped in Gaza.
“We can’t lose sight of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians had nothing to do Hamas. And they’re suffering as a result as well,” Biden said at an unrelated event in Philadelphia. He said he’d directed his administration to work with the governments of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and other Arab nations and the United Nations to send humanitarian relief urgently to those endangered by the war.
But as he has throughout the war, Biden pledged that the U.S. would stand by Israel against a Hamas threat he called “pure evil.”
Blinken voiced a similar message, saying at a news conference in Doha, Qatar, that although the U.S. continues to “discuss with Israel the importance of taking every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians,” it was also the case that any country “faced with what Israel has suffered would likely do the same.”
“No country can tolerate having a terrorist group come in, slaughter its people in the most unconscionable ways and live like that,” Blinken said. “What Israel is doing is not retaliation, it is defending the lives of its people.”
Blinken, shuttling among Saudi, Jordanian and other Arab leaders Friday after meeting with Israeli leaders in Tel Aviv the day before, also heard Arab demands for aid corridors to be opened for the Palestinians trapped in Gaza and fears that any Israeli ground offensive could push countless Gaza residents into their countries.
Besides his meeting in Doha with Qatar’s foreign minister, Blinken met with King Abdullah of Jordan, who rules over a country with a large Palestinian population and has a vested interest in their status, and also with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who runs the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank.
King Abdullah warned Blinken of “any attempt to forcibly displace the Palestinians from all the Palestinian Territories or to cause their internal displacement, calling for preventing a spillover of the crisis into neighboring countries and the exacerbation of the refugee issue,” Jordan’s government said in a statement.
Abdullah also 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 for international agencies to be allowed to work unhindered.
Blinken discussed with the king the efforts to release all of the hostages the Hamas militants seized, as well as efforts to prevent the conflict from widening, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.
Austin, meanwhile, saw firsthand some of the weapons and security assistance that Washington rapidly delivered to Israel after it was attacked. A senior defense official said the U.S. has already given Israel small diameter bombs as well as interceptor missiles for its Iron Dome air defense system and more will be delivered.
Asked about the likelihood of civilian casualties in Gaza, Austin said Israel has the right to defend itself. He said he respects Israeli forces because he’s worked with them 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 with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and the Israeli War Cabinet. He also spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, telling him, “As the president said, we have your back.”
Austin has spoken nearly daily with Gallant and has directed the rapid shift of U.S. warships, aircraft, intelligence support and other assets to Israel and elsewhere in 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 Mediterranean.
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 earlier Friday participated in a virtual meeting with families of 14 Americans who are unaccounted for after the Hamas attacks.
“They have to know that the president of the United States of America cares deeply about what’s happening. Deeply,” Biden told CBS’ “60 Minutes” on Thursday. “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.”
The White House said other participants included Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser; Roger Carstens, hostage affairs special envoy; John Bass, undersecretary of state; and Brett McGurk, National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East.
In Doha, Blinken thanked Qataris for their efforts in trying to secure the release of the hostages. Mohammed Al Thani, prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, said Qatar was doing its best and “progress will be determined in the next several days.”
Al Thani also said it was imperative to open humanitarian borders in Gaza to make sure aid can “reach our Palestinian brothers in the Gaza Strip.” He said civilians needed to be protected and that “collective punishment is unacceptable.”
Blinken expressed condolences for the loss of Palestinian civilian lives in his meeting with Abbas, Miller said, and “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.
Blinken made a brief stop in Bahrain before ending 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 travel to the United Arab Emirates and Egypt over the weekend.
Lee reported from Amman, Jordan. Omar Akour in Amman, Will Weissert in Philadelphia and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.