U.S. hasn’t seen moves needed to support Rafah invasion, Austin says

The U.S. defense secretary said that Israel will protect the U.S. humanitarian aid pier in Gaza but that U.S. troops will also be authorized to defend themselves if attacked

Jeon Heon-Kyun - Pool/Getty Images

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin attends a press conference with South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup (not pictured) at the Defense Ministry on January 31, 2023, in Seoul, South Korea.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said on Tuesday that the U.S. still hasn’t seen the steps it expects from Israel before it can support an invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah, the same day Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated the government’s intentions to conduct operations in the city.

The U.S. has said for months that it will not support a large-scale operation in Rafah without an Israeli plan to protect civilians from across the enclave who are sheltering in Rafah. Austin told members of the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that the U.S. has so far not seen steps by Israel to remove those civilians from harm’s way.

He did say, however, that the U.S. sees “some signs that they are moving towards that direction,” but “we have not seen a number of things that we believe will have to happen.” He said an Israeli plan must include provisions for moving “the preponderance” of civilians, including housing and medical care.

Austin also said that “there have been far too many civilian deaths already” and that the U.S. “would want to see things done in a much different way” in Rafah.

Austin said he would oppose an Israeli operation in Rafah without a plan for protecting civilians, but deferred to President Joe Biden on how the U.S. would respond to such a step.

He said that he would be consulting with Secretary of State Tony Blinken ahead of the issuance of a report next week on Israel’s compliance with NSM-20, the administration’s national security memorandum placing new conditions on foreign military aid, but has not yet held those consultations.

The defense secretary was pressed on how the U.S. will address attacks — which have reportedly already begun — on U.S. troops assembling and operating a humanitarian aid pier on the Gaza coastline

Austin said that Israel would “do everything possible” to provide security for the mission, a prospect that some Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), suggested they found troublesome, given concerns about Israel’s military operations in Gaza. 

Austin also said U.S. troops would have the right to defend themselves, including returning fire from the pier if they are attacked. He still insisted that this would not constitute a “boots on the ground” presence in Gaza.

Austin also called Qatar “very helpful” and “instrumental” in mediating talks for a hostage deal, adding that the nation, which also hosts Hamas leadership and is the source of growing frustration on Capitol Hill, has been “really really generous” in hosting a key U.S. air base.

“They’ve been great partners and I think they will continue to be going forward,” he said.

Separately on Tuesday, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID) urged Biden and Blinken to repeal the national security memorandum.

“This NSM is a redundant requirement that adds unnecessary bureaucracy and contributes to frustration from the partners and allies that count on U.S. security assistance,” they said. “In addition, the timing of its release makes clear that its aim is to placate critics of security assistance to our vital ally Israel.”

They said the memorandum, “while making no substantive change, threatens America’s ability to create and maintain partners and allies” and includes “vague standards” that “leave open the possibility of overly broad or inconsistent interpretations that undermine the reliability of U.S. security assistance.”


Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Tuesday the U.S. still hasn’t seen the steps it expects from Israel before it can support an Israeli invasion of southern Gaza city of Rafah, the same day Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated Israel’s intentions to conduct operations in the city, Jewish Insider’s Marc Rod reports.

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.