US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin described Hamas as “worse than ISIS” as he met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, to firm up the Biden administration’s support in its war with the militant group.
Speaking alongside Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at a press conference in Tel Aviv on Friday, Mr Austin compared the atrocities committed by Hamas terrorists on Israeli civilians this week to the horrors carried out by Islamic State.
“Encountering ISIS, I felt as if we were staring evil in the eye, it was truly evil,” he said.
“In what we’ve seen from Hamas, it takes that evil to another level.”
He added: “As a former Commander of Central Command, the deliberate cruelty of Hamas vividly reminds me of ISIS. Bloodthirsty, fanatical and hateful. And like ISIS, Hamas has nothing to offer but zealotry, bigotry and death.
“The world has just witnessed a great evil, the deadliest attacks on civilians in the history of the state of Israel and the bloodiest day in Jewish history since the end of the Holocaust.”
Condemning the “great evil” that has left more than 1,300 people dead in Israel, Mr Austin doubled down on the Biden administration’s commitment to the allied nation.
“So make no mistake, the US will make sure Israel has what it needs to defend itself and Israel has a right to protect its people,” he said.
Mr Austin confirmed that the largest aircraft carrier in the world – the USS Gerald R Ford aircraft carrier – is now in the region and a second US carrier is also heading to the region from Virginia on Friday.
He added that the US “stands fully ready to deploy additional assets if necessary”.
Mr Austin also vowed that the US is working closely with Israel to try to bring home hostages – including several Americans – who are being held by Hamas in Gaza.
“As the US Secretary of Defense, I am here in person to make something crystal clear,” Mr Austin said.
“America’s support for Israel is iron-clad and I extend my deepest condolences to the Israeli people for those killed or wounded in this terrible slaughter by Hamas. I am also here in solidarity with the families still living the waking nightmare of not knowing the fate of their loved ones.
“And we will continue to coordinate closely with Israel to help secure the release of innocent men, women and children in the clutches of Hamas, including American citizens.”
The defense secretary also boldly declared that the US is capable of supporting both Israel and Ukraine at the same time.
“We will stand with Israel even as we stand with Ukraine,” he said.
“The US can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Mr Austin travelled to the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv to meet with Israeli leaders and discuss the security assistance needs in its war with Hamas.
He is now the second highest-ranking US official to visit since the start of the war six days ago, arriving just hours after Secretary of State Antony Blinken left on Thursday.
During his visit, the US’s top diplomat reinforced Mr Biden’s stance that the US is firmly standing with Israel and met with families of Americans whose loved ones are missing and feared kidnapped.
In a solemn moment at a press conference on Thursday, Mr Blinken spoke about distressing photos shared by Mr Netanyahou’s office on social media saying what he had seen “defies comprehension” and is “simply depravity in the worst imaginable way”.
The graphic images showed the bodies of what appeared to be three babies. Two of them were burned beyond recognition; the third image was blurred but showed blood-stained clothes on the infant.
“We did see photos, videos that the Israeli government shared with us. Some I think have actually already been seen in public media. Others were new to me and I think new to our team,” said Mr Blinken.
“It’s hard to find the right words. It’s beyond what anyone would ever want to imagine, much less actually see and, god forbid, experience.”
He added: “Images are worth a thousand words, these images may be worth a million.”
At least 27 American citizens are among those killed when Hamas militants stormed across the Gaza border into Israel on Saturday morning, killing, kidnapping and injuring civilians.
The Israeli military has said that more than 1,300 people were killed in the attacks.
An unknown number of people have also been kidnapped and are being held hostage back in Gaza, with their desperate family members begging for them to come home safely.
US officials said that 14 Americans may be among them.
Israel has responded to the Hamas attacks by pummeling Gaza with retaliatory air strikes which have killed at least 1,500 Palestinians, including hundreds of children, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.
After cutting off supplies of electricity, water, food and fuel – sparking fears of an escalating humanitarian crisis – the Israeli army ordered all 1.1 million civilians in northern Gaza to evacuate on Friday morning.
Residents were given just 24 hours to get out, with the clock now ticking before fears of a ground assault could be realised.
But, terrified civilians and the United Nations have said that evacuations are impossible for many – while Hamas has ordered people to stay put.
For Americans in Gaza, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby admitted on Thursday that the US has “no physical means” of getting them out.
For US citizens in Israel, the first evacuation flights are expected to begin on Friday.
The State Department is arranging charter flights starting from Friday for US citizens and their immediate family members who have been unable to book commercial flights and are seeking to leave Israel. Any American citizens seeking to leave Israel are urged to complete an intake form on the State Department website.
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