US defense chief says Israel will only win in Gaza if civilians are protected

Citing lessons learned in Iraq, Lloyd Austin says victory in an urban area comes through protecting the population, not driving it into the arms of the enemy

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin makes remarks at a virtual Ukraine Defense Contact Group (UDCG) meeting, at the Pentagon in Washington, November 22, 2023. (Cliff Owen/AP)
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin makes remarks at a virtual Ukraine Defense Contact Group (UDCG) meeting, at the Pentagon in Washington, November 22, 2023. (Cliff Owen/AP)

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Saturday urged Israel to protect civilians as it battles Hamas in Gaza, saying that shielding noncombatants is necessary for victory in the urban fight against the Palestinian terror group.

Fighting between Israel and Hamas resumed Friday after a week-long hiatus, with both sides blaming the other for the breakdown of a truce deal and the resumption of violence. The US backed Israel in blaming Hamas for violating the truce.

Austin told the Reagan National Defense Forum in California that he had “learned a thing or two about urban warfare” while fighting in Iraq and leading the campaign against the Islamic State jihadist group (ISIS).

“Like Hamas, ISIS was deeply embedded in urban areas. And the international coalition against ISIS worked hard to protect civilians and create humanitarian corridors, even during tough battles,” Austin told lawmakers, corporate and defense leaders, and government officials attending the security conference.

“So the lesson is not that you can win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. The lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians,” he stressed. “If you drive [Gaza’s civilians] into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”

US military advisers are in Israel to offer their help, which includes experiences gained in Iraq, and in particular the city of Fallujah, where the US fought major battles against insurgents in 2004.

This picture distributed by the Israel Defense Forces on December 3, 2023, shows soldiers in the Gaza Strip amid the war against Hamas (Israel Defense Forces)

War between Israel and Hamas erupted when the Palestinian terror group carried out a devastating cross-border attack from Gaza on October 7 that killed over 1,200 people, mostly civilians. The 3,000 terrorists who invaded Israel during the assault also abducted at least 240 other people of all ages, including children and infants, and took them to Gaza as hostages.

Israel responded with an intense land and air campaign aimed at destroying Hamas and securing freedom for the hostages.

The truce lasted seven days, beginning November 24 with the first release of a group of hostages after some 50 days in Hamas captivity, and broke down early Friday morning with the resumption of fighting. During the truce, 105 civilians, most of them women and children, were released from Gaza, including 81 Israelis, 23 Thai nationals, and one Filipino, in exchange for 210 Palestinian prisoners, all of them women or minors. Israel also allowed an influx of humanitarian aid into the Strip.

As fighting resumed, Israel bombed Gaza and Palestinian terror groups resumed firing rocket barrages at Israel.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says that over 15,000 people have been killed in Israel’s offensive in the Palestinian territory, though those numbers cannot be independently verified and are believed to include both civilians and terror operatives killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires.

Those deaths have provoked widespread anger in the Middle East and provided an impetus for armed groups to carry out attacks against American troops in the region as well as on Israel.

Residents of the Qatari-funded Hamad Town residential complex in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip carry some of their belongings as they flee their homes after receiving notification from the Israeli army of an imminent strike, on December 2, 2023 (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Israel has faced drones and missiles launched from Lebanon and Yemen, while American forces in Iraq and Syria have been targeted in a series of attacks that have injured dozens of US personnel. Washington has blamed the attacks on Iran-backed forces and responded with airstrikes on multiple occasions in recent weeks.

“We will not tolerate attacks on American personnel. And so these attacks must stop,” Austin said. “Until they do, we will do what we need to do to protect our troops — and to impose costs on those who attack them.”

Defending US support of Israel and Ukraine, Austin said “the world will only become more dangerous if tyrants and terrorists believe that they can get away with wholesale aggression and mass slaughter.”

“You’ll hear some people try to brand an American retreat from responsibility as bold new leadership,” he said. “Make no mistake: It is not bold. It is not new. And it is not leadership,” he said, swiping at former US president Donald Trump’s isolationist policies.

Austin asked the lawmakers in the crowd to pass both the military’s budget and the supplemental funding for the wars.

“Our competitors don’t have to operate under continuing resolutions,” he said. “And doing so erodes both our security and our ability to compete.”

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