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Pentagon official arrives in Israel amid fears of Iranian attack

WASHINGTON, DC – FEBRUARY 08: Lieutenant General Michael E. Kurilla testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee February 8, 2022 in Washington, DC. Kurilla appeared before the committee on his nomination to become the next general and Commander of United States Central Command. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)  (Win McNamee)
By Cassandra Vinograd and Eric Schmitt New York Times

A senior U.S. military commander traveled to Israel on Thursday, officials said, as fears ran high that Iran would soon launch a strike to avenge the killings of several senior commanders.

Iran’s leaders have repeatedly vowed to punish Israel for an April 1 strike in Syria that killed several senior Iranian commanders. U.S. officials have said they are bracing for a possible Iranian response, and Israel has put its military on alert.

A day after President Joe Biden warned that Iran was threatening a “significant” attack, the top American military commander for the Middle East, Gen. Michael E. Kurilla, arrived in Israel.

The general went to Israel to coordinate on what is expected to be imminent retaliatory action by Iran, as well as to discuss the war in the Gaza Strip, Defense Department officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The Israeli military’s spokesperson, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said Kurilla had carried out a situational assessment and reviewed “regional security challenges” with the Israeli military’s chief of staff.

“We are highly alert and ready to face various scenarios,” Hagari said in a televised news briefing, adding that any strike from Iranian territory would be a clear regional escalation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged Thursday that Israel was facing “challenging times,” noting that “in the midst of the war in Gaza” his country was “also prepared for scenarios involving challenges in other sectors.”

“We have determined a simple rule: Whoever harms us, we will harm them,” he said while visiting an air base, using language that in recent days has been used to refer to threats from Iran and its proxies.

While Biden has become increasingly critical of Netanyahu’s conduct of the war in Gaza – threatening to withhold U.S. assistance unless Israel does more to protect civilians – he emphasized Wednesday that American support for Israel in the face of an Iranian threat was unconditional.

“As I told Prime Minister Netanyahu, our commitment to Israel’s security against these threats from Iran and its proxies is ironclad,” he said at a news conference.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken also “made clear that the U.S. will stand with Israel against any threats by Iran and its proxies” when he spoke by phone Wednesday with Israel’s defense minister, the State Department said.

As Iran and Israel have traded fresh threats in recent days, diplomats have been trying to reduce tensions and avert a wider regional war.

The foreign minister of Germany, Annalena Baerbock, spoke to her Iranian counterpart “about the tense situation” in the Middle East on Thursday, according to her office.

“Avoiding further regional escalation must be in everyone’s interest,” it said in a statement. “We urge all actors in the region to act responsibly and exercise maximum restraint.”

The Israeli strike in Damascus was among the most significant attacks in a yearslong shadow war between Israel and Iran.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.