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Amid U.S.-Israeli strains, Pentagon pushes for a new approach in Gaza

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urged Israel on Tuesday to abandon plans for a major ground offensive against Hamas militants in southern Gaza, as the Biden administration attempts to curtail a spiraling humanitarian crisis at a moment of acute strain between the United States and its closest Middle Eastern ally.

In talks with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at the Pentagon, Austin emphasized the need to avoid aggravating what he described as a deepening “catastrophe” in Gaza, where Palestinian civilians face widespread hunger, disease and danger amid Israel’s military response to Hamas’s bloody cross-border attack Oct. 7.

Echoing admonitions the Biden administration has made for months, Austin said there was a “moral necessity and a strategic imperative” to protect civilians in the Hamas-controlled Strip, where local authorities, who don’t distinguish between civilians and combatants, say more than 30,000 people have been killed, and pressed Israel to embrace less destructive alternatives to a major military push into the southern city of Rafah.

“In Gaza today the number of civilian casualties is far too high, and the amount of humanitarian aid is far too low,” he added.

Gallant’s visit to Washington this week takes on an additional importance after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, incensed by a U.S. decision to permit the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an unconditional cease-fire in Gaza, abruptly canceled a visit by a high-level delegation that President Biden had invited for discussions about Israel’s planned operation in Rafah, a final Hamas stronghold.

That decision, which surprised U.S. officials, intensified already heightened tensions between the Biden administration and Netanyahu’s far-right government. The two sides have been at odds over Israel’s settlement policies and its rejection of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Gallant, a political rival to Netanyahu who sits on a special Israeli war cabinet formed after the Oct. 7 attack, cited a multitude of threats facing Israel, including from militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the need to maintain Israel’s military edge over its adversaries.

The United States has made more than 100 weapons deliveries to Israel since the war began.

Speaking to reporters later in the day, Gallant said the ground operations in Gaza had two objectives: crippling Hamas’s military capability and securing the release of remaining hostages. At least 1,200 people were killed and 253 were taken hostage on Oct. 7.

Gallant said it was important to deter adversaries shared by Israel and the United States. “Our enemies need to know that this war will end with the destruction of the Hamas organization,” he told reporters.

He described the chief humanitarian issue in Gaza as distribution of aid once it entered the Strip, blaming Hamas for those problems. While U.S. officials in recent weeks have cited some progress, they have for months put a large part of the blame on Israel for not enabling more effective entry of needed assistance.

A senior defense official, speaking to reporters after the meeting, said the Biden administration supports Israel’s goal of dismantling remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah but that “finding an alternative approach” that protects Palestinian civilians “is really the priority.” This person spoke on the condition of anonymity to share insights about the two leaders’ discussion.

Austin, who as an Army general oversaw counterinsurgency campaigns in the Middle East and Afghanistan, has deep experience battling militant groups and with the United States’ own struggle to avoid civilian casualties. According to watchdog group Airwars, the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which began while Austin was the top military official for the Middle East, probably killed at least 8,000 civilians.

The Biden administration hopes to employ those lessons to limit civilian deaths in Gaza.

The senior defense official declined to detail the alternative approaches the administration was suggesting to Israel, but referenced the sequencing of humanitarian and military operations; enhancing security at Gaza’s southern border with Egypt; and the “precision targeting” of militant leaders. He said talks about the operation would continue. It was not clear whether the discussions included detailed military plans.

The Gaza conflict has intensified a debate about how far the United States must go in ensuring partners that receive U.S. arms and military support abide by international norms, including the laws of war.

The defense official declined to say whether the United States would impose conditions on military aid to Israel if it did not comply with U.S. requests, but cited Israel’s promise to comply with international law.

The conflict has also generated political pressure for both Netanyahu, facing demands to secure the release of remaining hostages, and for Biden, who, as he seeks a second term, faces criticism from within the Democratic Party over the Palestinian death toll.

Austin paired his entreaties with a reiteration of U.S. support for Israel and the goal of ensuring that Hamas cannot again stage such violence. He noted that he had visited Israel twice since the Oct. 7 attack.

“The United States is Israel’s closest friend and that won’t change,” Austin said.

Gallant, whom the defense official described as a “good friend” of Austin, met with national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday. He was expected to meet with CIA Director William J. Burns on Tuesday.

Dan Lamothe and Alex Horton contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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