US planning for evacuation of Americans from Middle East if conflict escalates

US officials are in the early stages of drawing up plans for wider evacuations of Americans across the Middle East that would potentially be carried out if conflict between Israel and Hamas forces spills out into a wider regional conflict, the White House said on Monday.

John Kirby made the announcement at a daily press briefing flanked by Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary. The National Security Council spokesman cautioned that such plans were not yet necessary, but would be ready in the event that a larger war broke out across the Middle East.

“There is prudent planning, and then there’s sort of the tactical-level planning right before you execute. What we’re talking about here is just prudent planning and thinking. There are no active efforts right now to evacuate Americans from the region, other than what we’re doing in Israel in providing charter flights,” explained Mr Kirby.

“It would be imprudent and irresponsible if we didn’t have folks thinking through a broad range of contingencies and possibilities,” he added. “And certainly evacuations are one of those things.”

It was a sign that the White House and America’s intelligence agencies are taking seriously the idea that Iran or Iranian-backed militant groups could become embroiled in the conflict in the coming days or weeks — possibly as a result of a ground invasion and formal occupation of the Gaza Strip.

Hundreds are dead on both sides as the bloodiest conflict in years has played out across Israel and Gaza over the past few weeks. Brought on by staggering carnage from a Hamas terrorist attack, the fighting has now evolved into a brutal siege of Gaza that is drawing condemnation and concern from some human rights watchers and critics of the Israeli government. A debate has raged, primarily on social media but to some extent in the news as well, over whether Israeli forces are doing enough to avoid civilian casualties in the densely populated Gaza Strip, where an estimated 60 per cent of residents are under 25 years of age.

The Biden administration has firmly placed its support behind Israel’s government, while openly cautioning against repeating the “mistakes” made by the US after 9/11. Officials including the president have also warned against treating civilians in Gaza as responsible for the violence caused by Hamas.

Progressives are pushing the Biden administration as well as Democrats in Congrses to call for a ceasefire. The US has stopped short of doing so, with Mr Kirby instead warning plainly that more civilians would be hurt or killed before the Israeli operation ends.

“This is war. It is combat. It is bloody. It is ugly, and it’s going to be messy. And innocent civilians are going to be hurt going forward,” he said at Monday’s briefing. “I wish I could tell you something different. I wish that that wasn’t going to happen, but it is going to happen.”