Right as the sailors and Marines aboard three of the US Navy’s assault ships were on their way home for Thanksgiving, they received an order to turn the ship around and set sail for Israel.
After passing the Strait of Gibraltar, south of Spain, the USS New York, USS Iwo Jima and the USS Gunston Hall were forced to return in the direction they had just come from. The ships had been on their way back to the US after a six-month deployment, but will now have their deployment extended on the Israeli coast.
Rather than return shortly after Thanksgiving, the estimated 2,500 Marines will now be delayed until the most recent Israel-Gaza clash settles down.
The ships will be on reserve for Americans who need to escape Israel as a result of the recent conflict with Gaza or require treatment for injuries from the conflict. Deadly rocket attacks and bloody missile raids have left many dead in a week of continuous fighting.
While there are no official figures about how many Americans currently live in Israel, about 2,000 US citizens move there every year. In case these Americans are injured in the conflict, the assault ships will be prepared to serve as floating hospitals. The Amphibious Assault Ships have the capacity to treat a large number of causalities. Their hanger bays and vast indoor rooms can be converted into makeshift hospitals. The ships are also equipped with a Landing Craft Air Cushion, a type of speedboat that can race to shore at 45 mph and carry 60 tons – or however many people it can fit – back to the ship.
President Barack Obama is not planning for an evacuation, but it remains a possibility, two US officials told CNN.
“This is due diligence. It is better to be prepared should there be a need,” one official said Monday.
“This is being done as a precautionary measure to allow the Marine team to respond to any crisis or contingency, whatever is out there. It is a prudent measure,” Cmdr. Marc Boyd, spokesman for US Naval Forces Europe/Africa, told Stars and Stripes.
The three Navy ships that were rerouted will not be involved in combat. The US military keeps three to four ships off the coast of Israel that are prepared to shoot down ballistic missiles in case Iran becomes an immediate threat.
The ships’ homecoming delay has caused some to worry about the future of the conflict and the US government’s knowledge.
“It seems to imply that Washington either knows something the public doesn’t, like the conflict could be set to escalate; or in fact it knows just as little as everyone else, and wants to be prepared regardless,” wrote Business Insider’s Robert Johnson.