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Pentagon restricts government travel to Israel

The moves comes amid growing concern about non-combatant safety in the Israel-Hamas warzone, where thousands of civilians have been killed.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

The Department of Defense has suspended travel authorizations to Israel for its top officials and for members of Congress amid the escalating Israel-Hamas War, which is entering its fifth week. Nearly 50,000 people are said to have been killed or wounded in the conflict thus far, most of them Palestinian civilians.

On Friday, Punchbowl News first broke the news of the Pentagon memo—signed by Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, President Joe Biden’s top official in the daily talks with Israeli leaders.

The memo, dated October 31, was reportedly distributed to leaders in Washington earlier last week and does not apply to the president, his cabinet, or several top military officials, including Austin.

“I hereby restrict visits by DoD senior leaders to Israel effective immediately and until further notice,” he wrote.

“I further discourage visits to Israel requiring DoD support by members of Congress and their staffs… DoD support to congressional delegation visits will be unavailable to Israel during this period, and no DoD support shall be made available for congressional travel to Israel without my approval.”

The new directive comes as concerns grow regarding the safety of foreign nationals in the war zone, who have been gradually granted permission to leave the region by the Israeli government. Israel has long restricted the free movement of Gaza inhabitants, including before the war, allegedly due to security concerns.

In the small Palestinian region, referred to by many commentators as “the world’s largest open-air prison,” daily bombardments from Israel since a Hamas invasion on October 7 have repeatedly affected civilian targets—at least some of which Israel claims are also harboring Hamas combatants.

An explosion of disputed origin allegedly killed hundreds sheltering in the parking lot of an Anglican hospital in Gaza on October 17, and an Israeli rocket strike two days later struck buildings at an Eastern Orthodox church, taking 18 more lives. The latter attack was swiftly condemned by Christian leaders in the Holy Land, including several Catholic bishops.

Austin, a Black Catholic, has come under fire alongside his coreligionist Biden since the onset of the Hamas war, for an unwillingness to cede to humanitarian calls for an immediate ceasefire as the civilian death toll mounts in Gaza. The U.S. has continued a longstanding policy of unconditional support for Israel despite data showing that some 40% of the roughly 10,000 Palestinians killed in the war were children.

Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv. of Lexington, an American prelate who serves as president of Pax Christi USA, wrote in a Religion News Service op-ed on Thursday that Biden and his administration are “not on the same page” as Pope Francis, who has repeatedly argued for a ceasefire and for peace in the region.

Israeli officials have been quoted calling for what appear to be war crimes throughout the past month—to say nothing of their very real blockade in Gaza, resulting in a lack of electricity, food, fuel, and supplies. Reports emerged on Sunday that at least one minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet considers nuclear warfare “an option” in the fight against Hamas. (The official was suspended from cabinet meetings the same day.) 

On Wednesday, President Biden called for a “humanitarian pause” in the conflict to allow for evacuations and aid shipments, but some say it’s too little, too late, and not nearly enough.

A group of U.S. nationals have even filed suit against the administration for allegedly failing to protect Americans in Gaza.

“We are here to make sure that our government knows that we will hold them accountable for the safety of every single one of its citizens until they are evacuated safely,” said attorney Ghassan Shamieh on Thursday in California, where several Palestinian Americans will wage a court battle with the help of the Arab American Civil Rights League.

Secretary Austin, as well as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, are named as defendants in the suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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