Lloyd Austin
Lloyd AustinREUTERS/Pascal Rossignol/File Photo

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that American troops may be fired at by terrorists in the Gaza Strip as they work to build a pier off the Gaza coast to facilitate the provision of more humanitarian aid into the Strip and would be allowed to return fire in the event of such attacks.

Speaking before the House Armed Services Committee yesterday (Tuesday), Austin said that it is "possible" that the American servicemen working on the pier could be attacked while in the course of their duties.

“Typically, all of the deployed service members carry guns, and they have the ability to protect themselves if challenged," he told the lawmakers.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) asked, "So if someone from land, and Gaza, shoots at our service members who are on the $320 million pier that we’re building, you’re telling me our service members can shoot back?"

Austin responded, "They have the right to return fire to protect themselves."

The Defense Secretary reiterated that American troops would not have "boots on the ground" in Gaza despite being present at the pier.

Senior Hamas Khalil al-Hayya has threatened to attack any foreign forces stationed in the area of the pier. “We categorically reject any non-Palestinian presence in Gaza, whether at sea or on land, and we will deal with any military force present in these places, Israeli or otherwise … as an occupying power," al-Hayya said.

Terrorists in Gaza have already attacked the pier. Last Wednesday, US officials confirmed that terrorists had fired mortars at the pier, damaging equipment and injuring one person.

Rep. Gaetz called the Secretary's remarks a "very telling moment."

“Shots from Gaza, on our service members, and then the response – our armed service members shooting live fire into Gaza – that is a possible outcome here so that we can become the Port Authority and run this pier,“ Gaetz said.