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US sends warships to eastern Mediterranean in support of Israel

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US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Sunday he has ordered the Ford carrier strike group to sail to the eastern Mediterranean to be ready to help Israel after the attack by Hamas that has left more than 1,000 dead on both sides. Americans were reported to be among those killed and missing.

The USS Gerald R. Ford, the US Navy’s newest and most advanced aircraft carrier, and its around 5,000 sailors and deck of warplanes will be accompanied by cruisers and destroyers in a show of force that is meant to be ready to respond to anything, from possibly intercepting additional weapons from reaching Hamas and conducting surveillance.

The large deployment, which also includes a host of ships and warplanes, underscores the concern that the United States has in trying to deter the conflict from growing.

But the Israeli government formally declared war on Sunday and gave the green light for “significant military steps” to retaliate against Hamas.

Preliminary reports indicate that at least four American citizens have been killed in the Hamas attacks and an additional seven were missing and unaccounted for, according to a US official.

The numbers were in flux and could change as a fuller accounting is compiled, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss initial reports received by the US embassy in Jerusalem. Most, if not all, of those reported dead or missing are dual US-Israeli citizens, the official said.

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Along with the Ford, the US is sending the cruiser USS Normandy and the destroyers USS Thomas Hudner, USS Ramage, USS Carney and USS Roosevelt. The US is also augmenting Air Force F-35, F-15, F-16, and A-10 fighter aircraft squadrons in the region.

The Norfolk, Virginia-based carrier strike group was already in the Mediterranean. Last week it was conducting naval exercises with Italy in the Ionian Sea. The carrier is in its first full deployment.

“The US maintains ready forces globally to further reinforce this deterrence posture if required,” Austin said.

In addition, the Biden administration “will be rapidly providing the Israel Defence Forces with additional equipment and resources, including munitions. The first security assistance will begin moving today and arriving in the coming days,” Austin said.

US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a telephone call on Sunday, discussed “the taking of hostages by Hamas terrorists, including entire families, the elderly, and young children”, according to a White House statement describing their conversation.

Biden stressed that all countries “must stand united in the face of such brutal atrocities”.

Biden updated Netanyahu on US diplomatic efforts and said additional help for Israeli forces was on the way, with more to come in the days ahead, the White House said.

They also discussed ways “to ensure that no enemies of Israel believe they can or should seek advantage from the current situation”.

Supporters of Israel face people rallying in support of Palestinians in Times Square, New York on Sunday. Photo: AFP

Palestinian militant group Hamas said on Sunday that the United States’ plan to provide increased military aid to Israel amounts to “aggression” against Palestinians.

“The announcement of the US that it will provide an aircraft carrier to support the occupation (Israel) is actual participation in the aggression against our people,” Hamas said in a statement.

A few dozen pro-Palestinian protesters gathered at Times Square in New York and near the White House in Washington on Sunday, expressing opposition to the United States’ support of Israel.

Some protesters carried banners saying “End US aid” and “resistance is not terrorism”. New York Governor Kathy Hochul on Saturday had condemned plans for such demonstrations, saying they were “morally repugnant”.

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The attack by Hamas launched at dawn on Saturday represented the biggest and deadliest incursion into Israel since Egypt and Syria launched a sudden assault in an effort to reclaim lost territory in the Yom Kippur war 50 years ago.

Hamas on Saturday said the attack was driven by what it called escalated Israeli attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and against Palestinians in Israeli prisons.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh had highlighted threats to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, the continuation of an Israeli blockade on Gaza and Israeli normalisation with countries in the region.

Netanyahu last month said he believed his country was on the cusp of peace with Saudi Arabia, predicting that the move could reshape the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s two holiest shrines, has long insisted on the Palestinians’ right to statehood as a condition of recognising Israel – something many members of Netanyahu’s nationalist religious coalition have long resisted.

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The United States on Sunday said that Saudi-Israel normalisation efforts should continue despite the latest attack.

“We think it would be in both countries’ interests to continue to pursue this possibility,” US Deputy National Security adviser Jon Finer told Fox News Sunday.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN earlier on Sunday: “It wouldn’t be a surprise that part of the motivation may have been to disrupt efforts to bring Saudi Arabia and Israel together, along with other countries that may be interested in normalising relations with Israel.”

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Reuters

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