Exclusive-Senior US general flies into Israel as its war with Hamas deepens

By Phil Stewart

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – The top U.S. general overseeing American forces in the Middle East made an unannounced trip to Israel on Tuesday, saying he hoped to ensure its military has what it needs as it fights a deepening war against Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The trip by Army General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, head of U.S. Central Command, is the latest by a senior U.S. official to Israel ahead of an expected ground assault by Israel’s military in Gaza. It comes a day before a planned visit by U.S. President Joe Biden to the country.

The U.S. military is increasing its firepower in the region, aiming to prevent Iran and other Iran-backed groups from getting involved in the conflict as international fears of a wider, regional war grow.

The Pentagon is also rushing weaponry, including air defenses and munitions, to Israel.

“I’m here to ensure Israel has what it needs to defend itself, particularly focused on avoiding other parties expanding the conflict,” Kurilla told Reuters, which is traveling with him, in brief remarks before landing.

A U.S. official told Reuters Kurilla was scheduled to hold high-level meetings with Israel’s military leadership, ensuring a clear understanding of the close U.S. ally’s defense requirements.

Kurilla was also expected to outline U.S. military support aimed at avoiding an expansion of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Washington has deployed an aircraft carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean and is sending another carrier to the region in the coming days, moves the Biden administration says are meant as a deterrent, not a provocation.

The U.S. already has a network of bases in the Middle East with troops, fighter aircraft and warships.

The United States has also told some troops, potentially 2,000, to be ready to deploy within 24 hours if notified – instead of the usual 96 hours – and could include units that provide assistance like medical aid if needed, a U.S. official said on Monday.

Israel has vowed to annihilate Iran-backed Hamas – which controls the Gaza Strip – after its Islamist fighters stormed Israeli towns eight days ago, killing 1,300 people and seizing hostages in the worst attack on civilians in the country’s history.

It has put Gaza, home to 2.3 million Palestinians, under a total blockade and pounded it with unprecedented air strikes, and is widely expected to launch a ground assault. Gaza authorities say at least 2,800 people have been killed there, around a quarter of them children.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held hours of talks with Israel’s war cabinet in Israel on Monday, and was once forced to shelter in a bunker for five minutes when air raid sirens went off.

International diplomacy has been focused on the humanitarian toll and preventing a spillover of the conflict – particularly into Lebanon where Iran-backed Hezbollah militants have been exchanging fire with Israel across the border for days.

In the biggest sign yet that the war could spread to a new front, Israel ordered the evacuation on Monday of 28 villages in a 2 km-deep (1.2 mile) zone near the Lebanese border. Hezbollah said it had targeted five Israeli positions.

Clashes this last week have been the deadliest in the Lebanon border area since a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Stephen Coates)