Israel-Gaza war : The defense secretary is amplifying the growing concern of the United States with the resumption of war
Protecting civilians is key in urban warfare, Austin says
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said Israel risks “strategic defeat” in its war with Hamas if it does not heed warnings of rising civilian casualties.
“I have personally pressed Israeli leaders to avoid civilian casualties and to avoid irresponsible rhetoric and to prevent settler violence in the West Bank,” Austin said Saturday in a speech at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California.
Austin’s comments come as top US officials are increasingly warning Israel about the death toll in the Gaza Strip. Those warnings, previously limited to closed-door meetings, have been opened up by growing pressure from Israel’s Arab neighbors, human rights activists and domestic opinion — including from the left of President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party.
While Austin and other US leaders have vowed to continue supporting Israel, they fear that US support could become unsustainable if civilian casualties continue to mount.
During a trip to Israel this week, Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken said the punitive campaign unleashed in northern Gaza should not be repeated as Israeli forces advance south following the end of a days-long ceasefire with Hamas.
In California, Austin turned to personal combat experience to make his case.
“I learned something about urban warfare from my time fighting in Iraq,” he said. “Like Hamas, ISIS was deeply entrenched in urban areas. And the international coalition against ISIS has worked hard to protect civilians and create humanitarian corridors.
“The lesson is not that you can win an urban war by protecting civilians. The lesson here is that you can only win an urban war by protecting civilians,” he said. “In this kind of struggle, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace tactical victory with strategic defeat.”
Austin also reiterated America’s advocacy of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
“We believe that Israelis and Palestinians must find a way to share the land they both call home,” he said. “It would compound this tragedy if only more uncertainty, more anger and despair awaited Israelis and Palestinians at the end of this terrible war.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Sen. Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, said of Austin’s remarks about civilian casualties. “Israel and its Western allies have been very careful to minimize civilian casualties, unlike Hamas, which does this on purpose.”
Israel and Hamas have been at war since Oct. 7, when fighters from the Iran-backed group swept into southern Israel, killing about 1,200 people and kidnapping 240. More than 15 have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched retaliatory airstrikes and a ground offensive 000 people, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run enclave.
In the years leading up to the October 7 Hamas attack, successive US administrations had rhetorically committed to a two-state solution, with normalization of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, most recently Saudi Arabia, a priority. The US and the European Union have designated Hamas as a terrorist group.
Austin has also repeatedly warned Iran against attacks by Tehran-backed militias against US personnel in Iraq and Syria. “We will not tolerate attacks on American personnel,” he said. “These attacks must stop.
The US defense chief cast the war in the Middle East as part of a growing constellation of national security concerns that stretch from the Middle East to Eastern Europe and Asia.
“We are living in challenging times,” Austin said. “This includes the major conflicts facing our fellow democracies, Israel and Ukraine; bullying and coercion by an increasingly assertive China; and the global battle between democracy and autocracy.
He also warned that America’s adversaries are increasingly finding common purpose in their desire to blunt US power.
“From Russia to China, from Hamas to Iran, our rivals and enemies want to divide and weaken the United States — and separate us from our allies and partners,” he said.
Austin’s warnings about growing global threats were accompanied by a mention of political challenges in Washington that could derail the US response.
“While I have you here, let me urge you to pass the full year’s allowance,” Austin told several members of Congress gathered in Simi Valley, referring to the ongoing clashes in Congress over funding the federal government.
“You see, our competitors don’t have to follow standing resolutions,” he said. “This undermines both our security and our ability to compete.”