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What US military support to Israel means for the Gaza war

What US military support to Israel means for the Gaza war
6 min read
Washington, D.C.
18 October, 2023
In-depth: The US has sent a group of aircraft carriers and thousands of military personnel to the waters off the coast of Israel, a reminder of its uncritical support amid the potential of a wider regional conflict.
US aircraft carriers have been deployed to Israel to help with their war against Hamas. [Getty]

When US President Joe Biden arrived in Israel on Wednesday, he was doing so in the wake of a bombing that killed hundreds of Palestinians at a hospital in Gaza, a tragic escalation in a conflict that broke out just over 10 days ago and is quickly developing by the day.

Within hours of Hamas launching a surprise attack on Israel on 7 October, which killed 1,400 Israelis, the US began moving a group of aircraft carriers and thousands of military personnel to the waters near Israel's coast, a reminder of the potential of a wider regional conflict, with concerns this could include Iran.

Over 3,000 Palestinians have since been killed by an 11-day bombing campaign in Gaza, Israel's deadliest ever, with at least 60 Palestinians killed in the occupied West Bank.

"I have directed the movement of the USS Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group to the Eastern Mediterranean," said US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, on 8 October, noting the purpose of regional deterrence.

"Strengthening our joint force posture, in addition to the material support that we will rapidly provide to Israel, underscores the United States' ironclad support for the Israel Defense Forces and the Israeli people," he continued.

Israel is already the largest recipient of US foreign aid since World War Two, receiving $3.3 billion in foreign assistance in 2022 alone, with the majority going to Israel's military.

Read more on the Israel-Gaza war
How Hamas caught Israel by surprise and risked its future
Will Hamas attack derail Israel-Saudi normalisation talks?

Aircraft carriers, jets, sailors, marines

The aircraft carriers, which are actually two groups of ships, are the USS Gerald R. Ford (which arrived last week), the world's largest, and the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier strike group from Virginia, which was ordered over the weekend. 

The Ford includes a nuclear reactor and can hold some 75 aircraft, including the F-18 Super Hornet jets and the E-2 Hawkeye.

Along with them will be more than 4,000 sailors and Marines. There is expected to be a total of 12 warships, and aircraft carrier escort ships, off the coast of Israel. The US has also confirmed that it is sending munitions to Israel.

Following the announcement of the aircraft carrier deployment, the State Department was quick to state that they had no plans to put boots on the ground, an important clarification given the American public's fatigue with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last 20 years.

"One of the reasons to move a carrier group is to signal to Hezbollah. Another audience for the carrier is Israel, to provide a level of reassurance at a time when the country is feeling shocked and vulnerable," Kelly Grieco, a senior fellow with the Reimagining US Grand Strategy Program at the Stimson Center, told The New Arab.

"I would be very surprised to see the US get involved in operations in a direct way," she said, noting that historically Israel has fought its wars on its own without direct US involvement.

The aircraft carriers are expected to be there in an intelligence and advisory capacity, and possibly play a role in releasing US hostages being held by Hamas, estimated at around 50 dual nationals out of around 200 Israelis.

They will be there both as a show of support to Israel as the US regional ally and as a deterrence to Iran and Hezbollah. 

US President Joe Biden arrived in Israel on Wednesday to discuss its plans for war in Gaza. [Getty]

A strategy to deter Iran

As tensions continue to grow as casualties mount, a major concern is the involvement of Iran or Hezbollah

In an interview with the US news magazine 60 Minutes, when Biden was asked if he had a message for Iran or Hezbollah, he said, "Don’t. Don’t, don’t, don’t" referring to them getting involved in the war. 

In the interview, Biden added that there was still no clear evidence of Iran being involved in the planning of the surprise attack by Hamas on Israel earlier this month. This is in contrast to previous media reports claiming Iran had played a part.

This could still change in the aftermath of Tuesday's hospital bombing or if Israel launches a full invasion of Gaza.

"I think the US and Iran are trying to avoid getting involved in something bigger, which is why the US have sent the aircraft carriers as a deterrent," James Devine, associate professor of politics and international relations at Mount Allison University, tells TNA.

"On the other hand, it would be hard for Iran not to get involved if Israel goes into Gaza with a full-on attack. And if Iran doesn't do anything, it's hard for them to say that they're the champions of Palestinians."

So far, Iran's statements have been vague, with officials saying that if Israel invades Gaza, there would be an uprising against Israel. Meanwhile, Biden has urged Israel not to re-occupy Gaza, saying it would be a big mistake.

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What happens next?

It is unclear what happens next, as tensions continue to mount, with no clear path for de-escalation.

One issue that has come up is the future of the Abraham Accords, the deal initiated by the previous US administration that would normalise relations between Israel and Arab Gulf states that did not include Palestinians.

There was expected to soon be a normalisation deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which now appears to be on hold indefinitely.

"When I first heard about [the surprise attack by Hamas], I thought about the Abraham Accords. I still think that had to be a motivating factor," said Grieco. For now, however, the group has been focusing on local issues with its public statements.

The USS Gerald R. Ford, the world's largest aircraft carrier, was deployed off the coast of Israel last week. [Getty]

Adam Shapiro, director of Israel-Palestine advocacy at Democracy in the Arab World Now, sees the Saudi deal as a potential bargaining chip for de-escalation.

"A lot of people are saying the Saudi-Israel deal is dead because of what has happened," Shapiro tells TNA

"Another way of looking at it is that the Saudis could offer a deal for what they want, part of which is a ceasefire. Something like that would accomplish what Israel wanted and could make the Saudis look like they're doing something for the Palestinians," he says.

For now, one thing that has him convinced that the US will not become directly involved in Israel's war with Hamas is the potential PR victory for the group.

"Hamas is not a military force that requires the most powerful military in the world to fight it," he says. "If the US did, it would elevate the status of Hamas."

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business, and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews