US Defense Secretary is in Israel to Meet With Its Leaders and See America's Security Assistance

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was in Israel on Friday for meetings with senior government leaders and to see firsthand some of the U.S. weapons and security assistance that Washington rapidly delivered to Israel in the first week of its war with the militant Hamas group.

Austin is the second high-level U.S. official to visit Israel in two days. His quick trip from Brussels, where he was attending a NATO defense ministers meeting, came a day after Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in the region. Blinken is continuing the frantic Mideast diplomacy, seeking to avert an expanded regional conflict.

Austin met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and was also to meet with Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant and the Israeli War Cabinet.

Also Friday, the Israeli military directed hundreds of thousands of residents in Gaza City to evacuate "for their own safety and protection," ahead of a feared Israeli ground offensive. Gaza's Hamas rulers responded by calling on Palestinians to "remain steadfast in your homes and to stand firm" against Israel.

Defense officials traveling with Austin said he wants to underscore America's unwavering support for the people of Israel and that the United States is committed to making sure the country has what it needs to defend itself.

A senior defense official said the U.S. has already given Israel small diameter bombs as well as interceptor missiles for its Iron Dome system and more will be delivered. Other munitions are expected to arrive Friday.

Austin has spoken nearly daily with Gallant, and directed the rapid shift of U.S. ships, intelligence support and other assets to Israel and the region. Within hours after the brutal Hamas attack across the border into Israel, the U.S. moved warships and aircraft to the region.

The USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier strike group is already in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and a second carrier was departing Friday from Virginia, also heading to the region.

Austin declined to say if the U.S. is doing surveillance flights in the region, but the U.S. is providing intelligence and other planning assistance to the Israelis, including advice on the hostage situation.

A day after visiting Israel to offer the Biden administration's diplomatic support in person, Blinken was in Jordan on Friday and held talks with Jordanian King Abdullah II. They did not speak to reporters after the meeting. Blinken then went on to a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has a home in Amman, the Jordanian capital, before leaving for Qatar.

Blinken discussed Hamas' attack last Saturday with the king and efforts to release all hostages the militants seized, as well as efforts to "prevent the conflict from widening," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.

The U.S. top diplomat "underscored that Hamas does not stand for the Palestinian people's right to dignity and self-determination and discussed ways to address the humanitarian needs of civilians in Gaza while Israel conducts legitimate security operations to defend itself from terrorism."

The monarch rules over a country with a large Palestinian population and has a vested interest in their status while Abbas runs the Palestinian Authority that controls the West Bank.

According to a palace statement, Abdullah stressed the need to open humanitarian corridors for medical aid and relief into Gaza while protecting civilians and working to end the escalation of the conflict.

He appealed against hindering the work of international agencies and warned against any attempts to forcibly displace Palestinians from Gaza and elsewhere, or to cause their internal displacement.

Earlier on Friday, Israel's military had told some 1 million Palestinians living in Gaza to evacuate the north, according to the United Nations -- an unprecedented order for almost half the population of the sealed-off territory ahead an expected ground invasion by Israel against the ruling Hamas.

The king also urged for the protection of innocent civilians on all sides, in line with shared human values, international law, and international humanitarian law.

In Doha, Qatar's capital, Blinken is to meet later Friday with Qatari officials who have close contacts with the Hamas leadership and have been exploring an exchange of Palestinian prisoners in Israel for the release of dozens of Israelis and foreigners taken hostage by Hamas during the militants' unprecedented incursion into southern Israel last weekend.

Blinken will make a brief stop in Bahrain and end the day in Saudi Arabia, a key player in the Arab world that has been considering normalizing ties with Israel, a U.S.-mediated process that is now on hold.

He will also travel to the United Arab Emirates and Egypt over the weekend.