As Israel’s assault on Gaza reaches its second month, uncertainty is mounting over the precise extent of the United States’ involvement in the onslaught, a factor with considerable consequences for American interests in the Middle East.
Eyewitness accounts emerging from Gaza have intensified scrutiny of the role of the United States in the ongoing Israeli attack on Gaza, despite Washington denying the presence of troops on the ground.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, a Palestinian evacuee claimed to have seen an American soldier on the ground during the evacuation. “He was in the military ranks, he had a flag on his combat uniform that was not Israeli,” the evacuee said.
When asked by the journalist if it was an American flag, his response was affirmative. “Yes, the soldier that we saw had an American flag on his combat uniform. My brother spoke to him at the front door, he told the soldier we will flee our home.”
This sighting aligns with analyses suggesting the presence of Delta Force operatives in the region — the United States Army’s elite counter-terrorism unit.
“It’s speculative at this stage, but the presence of Delta forces, known for operating in conflict zones like Syria and Iraq, could be plausible,” Dr Andreas Krieg, Assistant Professor at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, told Doha News.
Krieg emphasised that such forces, if present, would not be embedded in regular military operations but might conduct independent missions, such as hostage liberation or non-combatant evacuation.
This US strategy has been seen before globally, where small, specialised teams undertake targeted operations.
Krieg clarified that any US involvement would likely not signify an escalation or direct support for the Israeli military campaign, but rather focused missions to safeguard American interests, particularly hostage rescue. He believes this distinction is crucial in understanding the nuanced role of US forces in conflict zones.
“They would be there to free American hostages, which is their right,” Krieg noted, adding, “But it would cause uproar in the Middle East if proven, as it would appear to be deep American involvement in supporting Israel.”
The Pentagon’s movements add context to these speculations. Recently, they have been transparent about their activities in the Middle East, including moving aircraft carrier strike groups and deploying missile defence systems.
However, details about the role of American special forces in Israel and their contributions to the Israel Defense Forces remain ambiguous.
Reports suggest that US special operations forces in Israel are assisting in identifying captives, including American nationals, as revealed by a US Department of Defense official, though without providing comprehensive details.
The New York Times reported that several dozen commandos were dispatched to Israel, supplementing a team already present for training purposes. Notably, a Marine Corps general with extensive special operations experience was sent to advise Israel on its ground operations, though he departed before the ground incursion into Gaza began.
These movements, coupled with eyewitness accounts of soldiers bearing American flags in Gaza, though unverified, raise questions about the depth of US involvement.
“I would especially expect Iran and you know, the Axis of resistance, to take a position on this and point the finger at the US, but it’s not an escalation in any way. And it wouldn’t be seen as an escalation considering how much the US is giving to Israel in terms of billions of dollars every year for lethal aid as well,” said Krieg.
“I think a small squad of special operation forces operating in Gaza are not going to make a huge difference strategically or in terms of strategic communication,” he added.
The presence of Delta Force members, as suggested in a White House photo from President Biden’s recent visit to Israel, adds to the complexity of the US role. Complicating matters further is the Biden administration’s discretion regarding arms transfers to Israel.
Amid congressional pressure for transparency, the administration has remained reticent, particularly about the details of support and weaponry provided to Israel. This secrecy, analysts believe, is possibly driven by political considerations, given the global scrutiny and criticism of Israel’s actions in Gaza.
Last week, the US House passed a Republican bill to provide Israel with $14 billion in aid to bolster Israel’s military capabilities.
This includes $4 billion to boost Israel’s Iron Dome and David’s Sling missile defence systems as well as military equipment transferred from US stocks, Al Jazeera reported. This is in addition to the annual $3.8 billion in military assistance it already receives.
Since its establishment following the Second World War, the occupying state has been given US aid worth more than $124 billion.
The stakes for US interests in the region are high and perceptions of direct involvement in Israel’s attack could significantly impact America’s standing in the Middle East.
The Biden administration received stark warnings from American diplomats in the Arab world that its strong support for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza “is losing us Arab publics for a generation,” CNN reported on Friday, citing a copy of the letter.
Another leaked cable from the US embassy in Oman also highlighted concerns, noting that Israel’s campaign is adversely affecting Arab public opinion towards America.
Meanwhile, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen acknowledged the mounting international pressure to halt the Gaza operations.
“We recognise that Israel has come under more pressure… but it is increasing,” he said.
So far, more than 11,300 people have been killed since October 7, including 4,650 children and 3,145 women, while 29,200 others are injured.Over 1.5 million people have been internally displaced in the Gaza Strip, with most having fled to the south, where food, water and electricity are increasingly scarce.