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U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urges Israel to protect Palestinian civilians in Gaza

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will meet with Israeli leaders Monday to discuss the war with Hamas. File Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will meet with Israeli leaders Monday to discuss the war with Hamas. File Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 18 (UPI) -- Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday reaffirmed the United States' commitment to Israel but also called for the country to make stronger efforts to protect Palestinian civilians during their war against Hamas.

Austin made his comments during a joint news conference with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv.

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"We know that the past 72 days have been some of the most painful days in Israel's history," Austin said. "But it would compound this tragedy if all that was waiting for the Israeli people and your Palestinian neighbors at the end of this awful war was more insecurity, fear and despair.

"Israelis and Palestinians have both paid too big a price to just go back to Oct. 6. So I discussed pathways today toward a future for Gaza after Hamas, based upon the clear principles laid down last month by my friend, [U.S. State Department] Secretary [Antony] Blinken.

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Austin reiterated a position expressed by President Joe Biden and other U.S. officials to have Gaza and the West Bank be run by a reformed Palestinian Authority.

"Israelis and Palestinians both deserve a horizon of hope," Austin said. "So, the United States continues to believe -- as we have under administrations of both parties -- that it is in the interest of both Israelis and Palestinians to move forward towards two states, living side by side and in mutual security."

"We know how hard that is, especially after Oct. 7. But ongoing instability and insecurity only play into the hands of Hamas."

Austin, who was being joined by Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was expected to receive updates on how the Israel Defense Forces, the War Cabinet and Gallant to assess the current phase of the campaign in Gaza.

"[Secretary Austin] has been having discussions with his Israeli counterparts the entire time about the different phases of their campaign, how they assess the different phases of their campaign, and what their operational milestones are in order to feel that their population can be secure enough given their stated objective of the military dismantlement of Hamas," a Defense Department official said in a statement.

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"He wants to talk to them about how you move through those different phases."

The trip comes days after U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that Israel intends to transition to a new focused campaign to attack Hamas in "more precise ways."

"It's for [Israel] to determine when they assess that Hamas has been sufficiently degraded [so] that they can shift to the next phase of their campaign," the Defense Department official said. "We, as the Department of Defense, and Secretary Austin in particular, I think, [have] incredibly valuable perspectives on this and that's what he wants to consult with them about."

In the meantime, Austin is expected to announce increasing U.S. protection for Arab states to combat the increasingly frequent Houthi attacks being mounted from Yemen's ports on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, The Guardian reported.

Houthi attacks have already forced five big shipping companies to remove their ships from the Red Sea route because of the attacks. The Houthis have said they have increased the attacks to show support for Hamas in its fight against Israel.

The Maersk shipping line, one of the largest shipping and logistics companies in the world with more than 100,000 employees stationed across over 130 countries, shut down its operations late last week.

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