Defense Secretary Says Israel Risks ‘Strategic Defeat’ If Civilian Lives Not Protected

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Saturday Israel risked a “strategic defeat” if it fails to protect civilian lives in Gaza during its war with Hamas, adding he had personally appealed to Israeli leaders to do so.

“In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population,” Austin said during the annual Reagan National Defense Forum in California. “And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”

“So I have repeatedly made clear to Israel’s leaders that protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza is both a moral responsibility and a strategic imperative.”

Israel resumed its bombardment of Gaza on Friday after a brief cease-fire ended. The country has since widened its offensive to every part of the region, ordering those in southern Gaza to evacuate and vowing the incursion would be “no less strength” than that in the north.

At least 15,000 Palestinians have been killed since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack that left 1,200 Israelis dead, according to the Gaza health ministry, including around 200 since the Friday pause dissolved.

Austin reiterated Saturday the U.S. stood firmly behind Israel, calling the country America’s “closest friend in the world.” But his remarks were some of the strongest yet to protect civilians during the war, as well as to allow Gazans to access humanitarian assistance.

He added the only “viable” end to the war was a two-state solution.

“It would compound this tragedy if all that awaited Israelis and Palestinians at the end of this awful war was more insecurity, more rage and more despair,” Austin said. “Israelis and Palestinians have both paid too bitter a price to just go back to October 6th.”

“Without a horizon of hope, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain an engine of instability and insecurity and human suffering,” he added.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Israel earlier this week as the U.S. works to negotiate another pause in the war. John Kirby, the strategic communications coordinator at the White House National Security Council, told NBC the Biden administration was working “really hour, hour by hour,” to see if it can get both sides “back to the table.”

“We would like that to happen today,” Kirby said. “But honestly, I just don’t know.”