While an Israeli diplomat negotiates a possible cease-fire with Hamas in Egypt, there are signs the conflict my yet erupt into full-scale war.
Perhaps the most notable indicator involves the U.S. Navy. It was announced today that an amphibious ready group, including the landing dock USS Gunston Hall
; the amphibious transport dock USS New York
and the helicopter carrier USS Iwo Jima
have been re-routed from the homeward leg of their deployment, and sent to the waters off Israel. According to CNN
, the vessels have been dispatched to the eastern Mediterranean to assist with the possible evacuation of American citizens from Israel, in the event of a wider war between the Jewish state and its Muslim neighbors.
[U.S.] officials stressed an evacuation remains an extremely remote possibility and the Obama administration is not currently planning for one. Americans who wish to leave the region now are able to do so using commercial airlines.
But the decision to send the ships even if the event is such a remote contingency underscores the growing concern about where the Israel-Gaza conflict could be headed.
"This is due diligence. It is better to be prepared should there be a need," one official said Monday. Both officials said the ships would be used only for assisting Americans and not for any combat role.
The most immediate impact will be on the ships' crews and the estimated 2,500 Marines on board. They had been scheduled to return to Norfolk, Virginia, just after Thanksgiving; their homecoming will now be delayed several days depending on events, the officials said.
While there are no signs of a near-term evacuation of non-essential personnel (known in defense and diplomatic circles as a NEO operation), the re-positioning of those amphibious assets is significant. At the time they received their new orders, the ships and crews of the amphibious readiness group were west of Gibraltar, only days away from returning to Norfolk.
At first blush, it would appear the deployment was influenced (in part) by September's tragic events in Libya, when four Americans died during a terrorist attacks at our diplomatic and intelligence facilities at Benghazi. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta--and other senior administration officials--have claimed that the U.S. had few military assets in the region at the time that were capable of providing immediate support. The ready group is capable of putting more than 2,500 Marines ashore, supporting them with transport and attack helicopters, as well as AV-8B Harrier attack aircraft.
But Americans should be safe in Israeli territory, so the movement of the ready group is aimed more at a NEO contingency than other military operations. Yet, as we've noted during similar alerts, the potential number of evacuees could easily overwhelm our military forces off-shore. According to one estimate, the number of American citizens living in Israel may top 250,000; other projections put the total much lower, somewhere between 50-80,000. And, as we've observed in the past, the State Department often uses the "Rule of Three" in determining the number of potential evacuees; in other words, take the "known" number of Americans living in that country and multiply it by three; that latter figure is a good estimate of the how many U.S. citizens might request evacuation.
Obviously, you'd need more than three Navy amphibious ships to remove thousands of Americans from a war zone. If a NEO is in the offing, look for the State Department to begin organizing an airlift from Israel, using both commercial and military transport planes. But even then, it will be a slow process, one that could be complicated by enemy missile attacks against population and debarkation centers. At least one media report suggests Hamas may be preparing chemical warheads for its long-range rockets, a development that would certainly lead to a wider war and more difficulty in removing U.S. citizens from Israel.
There have been half-a-dozen major wars involving Israel since the Jewish state was re-established in 1948. Interestingly, the U.S. never conducted a NEO during any of those conflicts, but the preparations for that type of evacuation are now underway. So far, no one has issued a "go" order to the amphibious group (or other American military forces in the region). But the re-routing of the Iwo and its sister ships cannot be dismissed as a mere precaution. After the scandal of Libya, DoD and the White House aren't taking any chances and clearly, officials at both locations expect the situation to get much worse before it gets better.