U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was expected to press Israel to wind down major combat operations in Gaza on a visit Monday, in the latest test of whether the U.S. can leverage its unwavering support for the offensive to blunt its devastating impact on Palestinian civilians.
France, the U.K. and Germany — some of Israel's closest allies — joined global calls for a cease-fire over the weekend, and Israeli protesters have demanded the government relaunch talks with Hamas on releasing more hostages after three were mistakenly killed by Israeli troops while waving a white flag.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that Israel will keep fighting until it removes Hamas from power, crushes its still-formidable military capabilities and returns the dozens of hostages still held by the group after its Oct. 7 attack, which ignited the war.
The U.S. has vetoed calls for a cease-fire at the U.N. and rushed munitions to Israel while pressing it to take greater steps to avoid harming civilians. More than 100 people were killed in strikes on residential buildings in northern Gaza on Sunday, a Health Ministry official in the Hamas-run territory said.
The 10-week-old war has killed over 18,700 Palestinians and transformed much of the north into a moonscape. Some 1.9 million Palestinians — nearly 85% of Gaza's population — have fled their homes, with most packing into U.N.-run shelters and tent camps in the southern part of the besieged territory.
US pressure on Israel
Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. CQ Brown, who arrived in Tel Aviv on Monday, are expected to press Israeli leaders to transition to a new phase of the war after weeks of heavy bombardment and a ground offensive.
American officials have called for targeted operations aimed at killing Hamas leaders, destroying tunnels and rescuing hostages. Those calls came after U.S. President Joe Biden warned that Israel is losing international support because of its “indiscriminate bombing.”
But Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said last week that his country would continue major combat operations against Hamas for several more months.
So far, under U.S. pressure, Israel provided more precise evacuation instructions as troops moved into the southern city of Khan Younis earlier this month, though Palestinians say nowhere in Gaza is safe as Israel continues to carry out strikes in all parts of the territory.
Israel has reopened its main cargo crossing with Gaza to allow more aid in — also after a request from the U.S. But the amount is still less than half of prewar imports, even as needs have soared and fighting hinders delivery in many areas.
New York-based Human Rights Watch on Monday accused Israel of deliberately starving Gaza's population — which would be a war crime — pointing to statements by senior Israeli officials expressing the intent to deprive civilians of food, water and fuel or linking the entry of aid to the release of hostages.
The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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