By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin delivered perhaps his strongest remarks to date on Saturday over Israel's need to protect civilians in Gaza, calling them the center of gravity in Israel's war with Hamas and warning over the risks of their radicalization.
Austin, in remarks to the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California, said he has personally pushed Israeli leaders to avoid civilian casualties, to shun "irresponsible rhetoric" and to prevent violence by settlers in the West Bank.
He also said he's pressed Israel to dramatically expand Gaza's access to humanitarian aid, adding that he expected more deliveries of aid "in the days ahead."
"In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat," Austin said, drawing on his experience as a four-star general overseeing the battle against Islamic State militants.