The U.S. Navy directed three warships and the Marines aboard last week to remain on standby near the coast of Israel as a security precaution as the Gaza Strip conflict between Israel and Hamas continued to escalate.
"This is being done as a precautionary measure to allow the Marine team to respond to any crisis or contingency, whatever is out there," said Cmdr. Marc Boyd, spokesman for U.S. Naval Forces Europe/Africa. "It is a prudent measure."
The USS Iwo Jima, the USS New York and the USS Gunston Hall had completed recent port visits in Europe and were expected to return to Norfolk, Va., on Nov. 28 after their eight-month deployment when they were redirected toward Israel, Boyd said. The ships will remain in the region until further notice, Boyd said. There are roughly 2,300 Marines and sailors embarked on the ships.
The Marines are assigned to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit out of Camp Lejeune, N.C.
The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv was operating with reduced staffing and limited services Monday and U.S. citizens in Israel were encouraged to exercise caution, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said during a Monday news briefing.
The seven-day conflict has killed more than 100 Palestinians and three Israelis, according to The Associated Press.
Israel seeks a halt to the rocket attacks and an end to arms smuggling into Gaza, while Hamas wants a lifting of the six-year-long Israeli blockade of goods into Gaza.
Israel is intensifying its attacks on the Gaza Strip in what may be a last burst of fire ahead of a cease-fire ending its weeklong offensive in the Palestinian territory.
Heavy bursts of fire from tanks in southern Israel and gunboats off Gaza's coast could be heard late Tuesday. The target isn't immediately known, and no casualties were reported.
The fire took place amid growing signals that a cease-fire is close. A top Hamas official says a deal could be wrapped up soon, and Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel would be a "willing partner" in a diplomatic solution.
Israel launched its offensive to halt months of rocket fire. More than 130 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, and four Israelis have been killed in the fighting.
-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.