US defense secretary By Reuters

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© Reuters. File photo: U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin looks on as he attends the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus in Jakarta, Indonesia, November 16, 2023. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan/Pool/File photo

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin delivered perhaps his strongest remarks to date on Saturday over Israel’s need to protect civilians in Gaza, calling them the center of gravity in Israel’s war with Hamas and warning over the risks of their radicalization.

Austin, in remarks to the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California, said he has personally pushed Israeli leaders to avoid civilian casualties, to shun “irresponsible rhetoric” and to prevent violence by settlers in the West Bank.

He also said he’s pressed Israel to dramatically expand Gaza’s access to humanitarian aid, adding that he expected more deliveries of aid “in the days ahead.”

“In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat,” Austin said, drawing on his experience as a four-star general overseeing the battle against Islamic State militants.

“So I have repeatedly made clear to Israel’s leaders that protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza is both a moral responsibility and strategic imperative.”

Israel has sworn to annihilate Palestinian militant group Hamas following Hamas’ Oct. 7 rampage in southern Israel, in which Israel says 1,200 people were killed and more than 200 taken hostage.

The Gaza health ministry says more than 15,000 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the war, with at least 193 Palestinians killed just since Friday’s collapse of a truce between Israel and Hamas.

Austin’s remarks came as Israeli warplanes and artillery bombarded the enclave on Saturday.

The United States has rushed military assistance to Israel, including air defenses and other munitions.

Austin pledged that the United States would stand by Israel’s side, noting Israel’s obligation to respond after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack and calling the Palestinian militant group a “cruel enemy.”

“The United States will remain Israel’s closest friend in the world. Our support for Israel’s security is non-negotiable,” he told an audience of prominent U.S. lawmakers, national security officials and defense industry executives. Austin also renewed U.S. calls for a two-state solution to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

“Without a horizon of hope, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain an engine of instability and insecurity and human suffering,” he said.

As the Israel-Hamas war escalates tensions in the region, the Pentagon has been wrestling with wave after wave of attacks against U.S. troops by Iran-backed groups who blame the United States for Israel’s actions in Gaza. Austin accused Iran of “raising tensions” and noted recent U.S. air strikes in response.

“We will not tolerate attacks on American personnel. And so these attacks must stop,” he said.

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