‘Most humanitarian issue’ is 129 hostages held in Gaza, Gallant tells US defense secretary
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Dec. 18, 2023. (Photo: Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Lloyd Austin met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Monday in New York.

JNS Staff Report
December 18, 2023

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met in Israel on Monday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. The retired U.S. Army general and member of the National Security Council was expected on his trip to pressure Jerusalem to scale back the war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“We’re fighting a war of civilization against barbarism,” Netanyahu told Austin prior to their meeting at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv. The prime minister referred to Israel’s “commitment to achieve total victory against Hamas” and said that it is not only Israel’s war, “but in many ways your war, because you are leading the forces of civilization in the world.”

“This is a battle against the Iranian axis of terror, which is now threatening to close the maritime strait of Bab el-Mandeb. This threatens the freedom of navigation of the entire world,” Netanyahu added. “I appreciate the fact that you’re taking action to open that strait. It’s not only our interest. It is the interest I think of the entire civilized community.”

On his fourth trip to Israel as defense secretary, and his second since Oct. 7, Austin said he was visiting to mourn with Israel.

“I’m here to underscore what President Biden has said again and again: Our commitment to Israel is unshakeable,” he said. “I know that Israel is a small, tight-knit country, and I know that all Israelis were touched by the vast evil committed by Hamas.”

“I’m here to mourn with you for the innocent souls taken from you on Oct. 7 and I’m also here to stand alongside the families of those still missing in Gaza, including U.S. citizens,” he said.

Austin said that no one—including groups and states—should test “unwavering” U.S. commitment to Israel.

“In the Red Sea, we’re leading a multinational maritime task force to uphold the bedrock principle of freedom of navigation. Iran’s support for Houthi attacks on commercial vessels must stop,” Austin said. “We’ll continue to provide Israel with the equipment that you need to defend your country,” including “critical munitions, tactical vehicles and air defense systems.”

Austin added that he was in Israel to “discuss how we can best support Israel on a path to lasting security and that means tackling urgent needs first. We must get more humanitarian assistance in to the nearly 2 million displaced people in Gaza and we must distribute that aid better.”

In the meeting with Netanyahu, Austin was joined by Gen. Charles Brown, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff; David Satterfield, special envoy for humanitarian affairs; Stephanie Hallet, deputy U.S. ambassador to Israel; and Austin’s chief of staff Kelly Magsamen.

Representing the Israeli side were Gallant, National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, and the military secretary to the prime minister, Maj. Gen. Avi Gil.

Austin also attended a meeting of the War Cabinet, which includes Netanyahu, Gallant and Minister-without-Portfolio Benny Gantz.

“Anytime we discuss humanitarian issues, we must remember: The 129 hostages still held in Gaza. This is the most humanitarian issue,” Gallant said during a press conference with Austin.

He added of the Houthi threat that “Their actions threaten international freedom of navigation, and their reckless behavior—firing ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and drones towards Israel, can drag the region into war.”

“The State of Israel values U.S. leadership, and we will support international efforts,” he added. “At the same time, we maintain the right to take all the actions necessary, to defend our sovereignty and our citizens.”

Citing U.S. officials, The New York Times reported that the Pentagon chief was to discuss with his Israeli counterparts a transition to the next phase of the war, which the Americans envision as “smaller groups of elite forces that would move in and out of population centers in Gaza, conducting more precise, intelligence-driven missions to find and kill Hamas leaders, rescue hostages and destroy tunnels.”

Jerusalem has made it clear, however, that the current aerial, naval and ground campaign in Gaza could take several more months to complete, potentially setting up a clash with the Biden administration. Israel has previously stated its war goal as nothing less than the elimination of Hamas in Gaza.

Gallant told visiting U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan during discussions held at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv last week that the war against Hamas will continue for several months.

The minister told Sullivan that Hamas “is a terrorist organization that built itself [up] over a decade to fight Israel, and built infrastructure under the ground and above the ground, and it is not easy to destroy them. It will require a long period of time; it will last more than several months, but we will win, and we will destroy them. So thank you once again for coming to Israel, for helping us and for supporting us.”

Monday’s visit is Austin’s second to Israel since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, in which thousands of Palestinian terrorists broke across the border, murdering some 1,200 people, wounding over 5,000 others and taking around 240 hostages back to Gaza. Terrorists in Gaza have fired more than 11,500 rockets at Israel since the start of the war.

On Sunday, Austin traveled to Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, where he discussed maritime security and freedom of navigation in the region in light of continued attacks by the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.

The Guardian reported on Sunday that during his Middle East visit, Austin will announce the launch of a maritime protection force with the participation of Arab states to counter the Houthi threat to commercial shipping in the Red Sea. It will be provisionally called “Operation Prosperity Guardian.”

Austin and Netanyahu both emphasized the Houthi threat during their remarks on Monday.

The U.S. military leader also made an unscheduled visit on Sunday to Kuwait to pay respects to the country’s emir, Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah, whose death was announced on Saturday. Austin met with the Kuwaiti deputy prime minister and minister of defense, Sheikh Ahmad Fahad Al-Ahmad Al Sabah.

Austin is also scheduled to visit Qatar and meet with the crew of the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier. The vessel, the largest warship ever built, was positioned in the Eastern Mediterranean after the Oct. 7 attack as a measure of deterrence against the Israel-Hamas war expanding into a wider regional conflict.

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