Israel Doesn't Want US Troops on the Ground as It Wages War, White House Says

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The USS Gerald R. Ford in the eastern Mediterranean Sea
The USS Gerald R. Ford steams alongside USNS Laramie (T-AO-203) during a fueling-at-sea in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, Oct. 11, 2023. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jacob Mattingly)

The White House said Thursday that U.S. military combat support in Israel is for now firmly off the table, drawing a bright line as the bloody war with Hamas continues to develop and the USS Gerald Ford carrier strike group remains in the region.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that "the Israelis have made it very clear that they don't want foreign troops on their soil -- that they want to prosecute these operations on their own ... and they have every right to want to do that."

As a result, "there are no intentions, no plans to put American troops on the ground in combat," Kirby said.

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    Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was scheduled to travel to Israel on Friday to meet with top officials there as U.S. aid shipments have begun flowing in, a senior defense official told reporters Thursday -- a visit that comes on the heels of Secretary of State Antony Blinken's trip to the country.

    Austin is "expecting to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Minister of Defense Gallant and the Israeli war cabinet," and he will use the trip to "underscore his unwavering commitment to Israel security" and have in-depth conversations about the leaders' "operational planning and their objectives for this conflict," the senior defense official said.

    The first U.S. security aid shipment arrived earlier this week, and the Pentagon was readying shipments of Iron Dome missile interceptors. "We will continue to be responsive to Israel's requests for air defense, artillery, ammunition and precision-guided munitions," the official said.

    The statement by the White House on Thursday seemed to scuttle -- at least for now -- the idea of using U.S. special operations forces to rescue hostages being held by Hamas, including what lawmakers on Capitol Hill earlier this week described as "dozens" of Americans.

    Questions around the possibility of American troops engaging in combat arose again after a Pentagon official confirmed late Tuesday evening that U.S. special operations personnel were at the U.S. Embassy in Israel as part of an existing agreement and had offered to help with hostage recovery efforts.

    Meanwhile, lawmakers were also telling reporters that they were willing to support Israel with whatever it needs -- including participation in raids -- should it ask.

    The senior defense official said the Pentagon’s advice and consultations to the Israel Defense Forces on hostage rescue efforts were "a high priority" for both.

    Aside from the advisers in the country, the Pentagon also moved the USS Gerald Ford, along with four destroyers and a cruiser, into the area of the eastern Mediterranean Sea on Tuesday afternoon. Additional A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft arrived Thursday.

    The war was sparked on Saturday when Hamas, the militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, suddenly and unexpectedly bombarded Israel with rockets and sent gunmen into the country to slaughter civilians.

    For now, the U.S. assets sent to the area are meant as a show of support and deterrence against groups such as Hezbollah on Israel's northern border or Iran getting involved in the conflict.

    The defense official who spoke with the media Thursday did note that the Ford and its accompanying ships have many capabilities -- specifically highlighting their ability to conduct intelligence and maritime support, as well as long-range strike options.

    When Military.com asked for more information on the possibility of long-range strikes -- typically a term associated with launching a missile at a distant, and often inland, target -- the official stressed that, while that is something the strike group is capable of, it isn't "on the table" right now.

    As the Pentagon staged support, U.S. citizens were also being offered ways out of the country, should they need it.

    In an emailed statement Thursday, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said that the agency had arranged for charter flights to assist U.S. citizens and immediate family members who were unable to book commercial transit.

    Miller said that those flights will start Friday, and "senior State Department officials are actively working with airline carriers and international partners on how best to provide additional options to U.S. citizens."

    -- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on X at @ktoropin.

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