Defense Secretary Austin due Friday; US prepares evacuation flights for its citizens

Visit comes a day after US Secretary of State Blinken arrived, vowed America’s unstinting support for Israel in meeting with Netanyahu

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, September 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, September 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin plans to visit Israel on Friday, the second high-level US official to visit the country in two days, in a deliberate show of support and an effort to determine what additional military aid is needed in the war with Hamas.

Austin is expected to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, said a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive travel details.

Austin’s arrival comes just a day after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited and vowed American support for Israel in a meeting with Netanyahu.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Austin said the US is “working urgently to get Israel what it needs to defend itself, including munitions and our Iron Dome interceptors.”

Meanwhile, the White House announced that the US government will begin operating evacuation flights to help Americans leave Israel as the IDF prepares to escalate retaliatory action against Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip.

The evacuation flights are expected to begin Friday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said. The US government is arranging for at least four charter flights a day out of Israel, according to people familiar with the planning.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference after their meeting in Tel Aviv on Thursday, October 12, 2023. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin, pool)

The announcement came as the White House confirmed that the death toll in the fighting now includes at least 27 Americans. The Hamas onslaught has claimed at least 1,300 lives in Israel, the vast majority of them civilians.

Fourteen US citizens in Israel remain unaccounted for. The White House has said a “handful” of Americans are among the dozens of people that Hamas took hostage.

US officials estimate 160,000-170,000 Americans are in Israel, as residents, tourists or in some other capacity. An estimated 500 to 600 American citizens are in Gaza, including dual Palestinian-American nationals, and people who have been working as humanitarian workers or visiting relatives. All exits from the blockaded territory are currently closed.

The State Department said in a statement that it anticipated it will initially facilitate the departure of thousands of US citizens per week out of Israel. The overall security situation, availability and reliability of commercial transportation, and US citizen demand will all influence the duration of this departure assistance. The department asked US citizens in need of evacuation assistance to complete the crisis intake form at travel.state.gov.

There are still some commercial carriers flying in and out of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, and ground routes are open to leave Israel. White House officials, however, have voiced concern that those options may not be feasible or affordable for some Americans in Israel who want to leave.

Secretary of State Blinken visited Israel on Thursday to meet with Netanyahu and Israeli citizens. He was joined by the deputy special representative for hostage affairs, Steve Gillen, who will stay in Israel to support the efforts to free the hostages.

A press conference held by relatives of missing US citizens, in Tel Aviv on October 10, 2023. (Eliyahu Friedman/JTA)

Blinken said Thursday that Americans would continue pushing regional countries for a safe passage in and out of Gaza, which could help the hundreds of American civilians trapped in the enclave.

Israeli defense officials have yet to order a ground invasion of the pummeled territory, but have been planning for the possibility. The military has called over 300,000 reservists into action in preparation.

Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who joined from Air Force 2 en route to Las Vegas, Nevada, met on Thursday with senior administration officials to discuss efforts to safeguard the US, including Jewish, Arab and Muslim communities, following the Hamas onslaught against Israel.

Most Popular
read more: