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US Calls Hamas Attack 'ISIS-Level Savagery'

Destruction made by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip is seen in Ashkelon, Israel, Oct. 9, 2023.
Destruction made by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip is seen in Ashkelon, Israel, Oct. 9, 2023.

The U.S. military is surging munitions and equipment to Israel and voicing unequivocal support for the country’s military, saying the Hamas attack on Israeli civilians amounted to nothing less than “ISIS-level savagery.”

The statement by a senior U.S. defense official echoed comments by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also likened Hamas to the Islamic State terror group, which gained notoriety for posting videos of beheadings and other executions on social media.

"I think there's been an instinct to see this as the same kind of tensions or conflicts that we've seen between Palestinians and Israelis,” said the official, briefing reports on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon. “This is different.”

FILE - A view of a junction in the Sderot area, southern Israel, shows the aftermath of a mass-infiltration by Hamas gunmen from the Gaza Strip, Oct. 7, 2023.
FILE - A view of a junction in the Sderot area, southern Israel, shows the aftermath of a mass-infiltration by Hamas gunmen from the Gaza Strip, Oct. 7, 2023.

“Hamas militants going across Israel, murdering children in front of their parents, massacring with indiscriminate violence [at] music festivals, burning down entire houses while families sheltered in their bunkers. ... It's unprecedented,” the official said.

"We back Israel and its right to respond to ensure that its own citizens and its territory are safe from Hamas terror and recognize that there's going to need to be a response for Israel to restore deterrence," the official added.

Already, the U.S. has ordered the USS Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group to the eastern Mediterranean, which includes the U.S. Navy's most advanced aircraft carrier, a guided missile cruiser and five guided missile destroyers.

The official said the ships were set to arrive “very soon” and would begin carrying out maritime and air operations to reassure allies and to deter actors such as Iran and its various proxies, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, from trying to exploit or escalate the conflict.

The strike group "can conduct a full spectrum of missions from intelligence collection, maritime dominance, to long range strike," the official said. "[It] will ensure the United States is postured to respond to any contingencies."

Yet despite concern about the potential threat from Iran and its proxies, the senior defense official repeated statements by other top-level U.S. officials that Washington does not have any evidence yet to directly connect Iran to the Hamas plot.

But the senior official said that does not mean the U.S. is underestimating the threat from Tehran.

"Of course, Iran is in the picture," the official said. "We've been very clear for years that Iranian support to a variety of militia groups, the sophistication of weapons it's providing, has been increasing."

The White House, however, went further, accusing Iran of bearing some responsibility.

"No question that there's a degree of complicity here," said John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, during a call with reporters late Monday.

"Iran has been supporting Hamas for many, many years – tools, training bringing capabilities, certainly rhetorically, but in much more tangible ways than that," he said.

But Kirby, like other U.S. officials, cautioned there is so far no "smoking gun."

"We haven't seen hard, tangible evidence that Iran was directly involved in participating in or resourcing or planning these sets of complex attacks that Hamas pulled off over the weekend," he said.

Kirby added both the U.S. and Israel will continue to review the available intelligence, and that for now the U.S. will focus on supporting Israel and trying to make sure the conflict does not escalate, something that has been a lingering concern.

Multiple U.S. officials Monday pointed to Hezbollah after three of the group’s militants were killed in cross-border violence along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.

"There's been conflicting messages coming out of Hezbollah about the degree to which they will or plan to get involved," Kirby said, blaming the Iran-backed group for a series of rocket attacks.

The senior defense official was blunt.

"We are deeply concerned about Hezbollah making the wrong decision and choosing to open a second front to this conflict," the official said.

There is some concern, though, that the threat from Iran and its proxies may be greater than what either Israel or the U.S. has to this point anticipated, and that the U.S. in particular, needs to reevaluate the threat.

"There is clearly a dire need to reassess the military capabilities of Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Iraqi Shia militias groups with close ties to Iran," according to Colin Clarke, director of research at the global intelligence firm The Soufan Group.

"Given all of the other global hot spots, it is entirely possible, and at this point seems to be the case, that Hamas was overlooked, both in terms of capabilities and intent," Clarke told VOA via email. "It would be wise to scrutinize the IRGC-QF's [Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps - Quds Force] training methods and provision of weapons, equipment and support."

Some other analysts further caution that following the U.S. killing of one of its top commanders, Iran was "primed to demonstrate that they were not weak and could 'reach out and touch' one of their major enemies in the region."

"We are entering a new phase," said Phillip Smyth, a former fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who studies Iran's proxy groups, told VOA by text.

"The Iranians never stop developing, promoting, and growing their proxy network and the network isn't a simple black and white level entity," he said, adding that in the case of the Hamas attack, "it's quite clear that Iran had an incredibly strong guiding hand."

U.S. officials hope that the arrival of the carrier strike group will convince Iran, and others, to see reason.

"There's a lot of capabilities in that strike force," the NSC's Kirby said, responding to a question from VOA. "And we believe that the folks in the region, they understand. They understand what those capabilities are."

While Kirby and others note that the U.S. will be willing to flex its military might, if needed, officials say there are no plans to put U.S. troops on the ground in Israel or Gaza, and that the focus is on getting Israel what it needs for its fight against Hamas.

Pentagon officials also said planes loaded with air defense capabilities, munitions and other equipment are already enroute to Israel, with more deliveries likely on the way.

Additionally, U.S. military officials have reached out to private defense companies, urging them to speed the delivery of existing Israeli military orders.

"For every request that our Israeli counterparts have made of us, we are able to meet those requests," the senior defense official told reporters, adding that the Pentagon does not anticipate that surging support for Israel will have any impact on Washington's ability to simultaneously support Ukraine in its fight against Russia or on the U.S. ability to respond to other contingencies.

U.S. officials are also aware that this aid to Israel will not come without some controversy, especially given that much of the fighting will take place in a densely populated area and that Israeli airstrikes against suspect Hamas targets have already resulted in reports of civilian casualties.

The officials said no one wants to see innocent civilians in Gaza killed or wounded, adding Israel has a right to defend itself and often takes steps to minimize the deaths of non-combatants.

"We are always urging our Israeli partners, as we do any partner, to avoid civilian casualties," the senior defense official said. "I would note here that's absolutely something that Hamas did not do."

Anita Powell contributed to this report.