US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has urged Israel to protect civilian populations in Gaza, cautioning that failure to do so could turn tactical victories into strategic defeats.
"In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat," Austin said Saturday at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California.
"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," he added.
Austin said he personally urged Israeli leaders to avoid civilian casualties, discourage irresponsible rhetoric, prevent violence by settlers in the occupied West Bank, and enhance humanitarian aid accessibility.
He stressed that any state must respond to attack, referring to the Oct. 7 cross-border incursion by Palestinian group Hamas against Israel, and emphasized that every state had a duty to protect civilians during armed conflicts.
The defense chief also said that a two-state solution remains the only viable way out of the conflict.
"Without a horizon of hope, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain an engine of instability and insecurity and human suffering," he cautioned.
Reiterating US support for Israel, he said Washington would "remain Israel's closest friend in the world.
"Our support for Israel's security is non-negotiable. And it never will be," he added.
The Israeli army resumed bombing the Gaza Strip early Friday after declaring an end to a week-long humanitarian pause with the Palestinian resistance group, Hamas.
More than 15,500 Palestinians, mostly children and women, have been killed in Israeli attacks since Oct. 7 following a cross-border attack by Hamas.
The official Israeli death toll stands at 1,200.