U.S. defense secretary presses Israeli officials on protecting civilian lives in Gaza

People mourn as they collect the bodies of Palestinians killed in an airstrike on Monday in Khan Yunis, Gaza. The United
Updated December 18, 2023 at 1:01 PM ET

TEL AVIV, Israel —Pressure was mounting on Israel Monday to begin bringing the war in Gaza to a close, as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with military officials to relay Biden administration concerns over the heavy death toll for Palestinian civilians. The United Nations Security Council was also gearing up for yet another vote this week on a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire.

The U.S. defense secretary arrived in Israel on Monday, meeting in Tel Aviv with his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant. Austin said U.S. support for Israel is unshakeable.

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Israel, he said, “has every right to defend itself,” adding however that “protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza is both a moral duty and a strategic imperative.”

Austin’s remarks echoed those of other senior American officials who have recently visited Israel, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

U.S. officials are urging Israel to transition from its intense bombing campaign in Gaza to more a more surgical ground operation. Austin said he is not dictating a timeline or terms.

Gallant only said the war will take time.

The Biden administration has remained firmly behind Israel in its stated goal to “crush Hamas,” but in recent weeks officials have expressed growing concern about the number of civilian casualties in Gaza and the humanitarian crisis unfolding there. President Biden has urged Israel to “be focused on how to save civilian lives.” Austin, in a speech earlier this month, warned Israel that it risked “strategic defeat” if it didn’t minimize Palestinian casualties.

In an earlier post, Austin said he also planned to travel to Bahrain and Qatar “to underscore U.S. commitments to strengthening regional security and stability, and working with partners and allies to advance defense capabilities.”

Austin’s visit follows a weekend in which families and supporters of hostages seized by Hamas militants during the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel renewed calls for a truce to facilitate their release after Israeli forces mistakenly shot and killed three escaped captives during combat operations in northern Gaza on Friday.

In the Oct. 7 attack, Hamas killed about 1,200 people and seized some 240 hostages, Israel says. During a week-long cease-fire at the end of November, about 100 hostages were set free in exchange for some 300 Palestinians held in Israeli jails. Since Israel launched an air-and-ground offensive in response to the Hamas attack, more than 18,000 people — mostly women and children — have been killed in the fighting, according to the Gaza health ministry.

In a news briefing Sunday evening, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), was asked about the accidental killing of the three Israeli captives. He called the incident “very difficult and painful” and acknowledged that it “very easily” could have been avoided.

He said the escaped captives “took into account that they were taking a risk by coming to the IDF force” and that to minimize that risk, they “took off their shirts so that no one would think they had a charge on them and held a white cloth on a pole to identify themselves.”

Halevi also admitted that the captives had called for help in Hebrew.

A cease-fire vote at the U.N.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council was set to vote on Monday on a renewed proposal for an “urgent and sustainable cessation of hostilities” in Gaza. Earlier this month, the U.S. used its veto power in the Security Council to block a similar measure.

The U.N. World Food Program, warned Monday that “Gazans are becoming more desperate by the day, with nowhere to go and nothing to eat.”

“Our senior leaders saw this firsthand when they went to Gaza. Families are going days without food. To prevent further suffering, the fighting needs to stop,” WFP said.

Separately, Human Rights Watch issued a critique accusing Israel of using starvation as a weapon of war. The group points to public statements by Israeli officials, including the nation’s defense minister, expressing their aim to deprive Gaza’s people of food, water and fuel.

“Israeli forces are deliberately blocking the delivery of water, food, and fuel, while willfully impeding humanitarian assistance, apparently razing agricultural areas, and depriving the civilian population of objects indispensable to their survival,” the organization said in its report.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat responded to the report by calling Human Rights Watch “an anti-Israel organization,” according to the Times of Israel.

At the Vatican, meanwhile, Pope Francis has also sought to draw the world’s attention to unarmed civilians being killed in Gaza. In written remarks that followed news of an Israeli sniper killing two Palestinian Christian women sheltering at Holy Family Parish in northern Gaza, Francis said there are no terrorists at the church but rather children, nuns, families and people who are sick or have disabilities.

Holy Family Parish, which also came under rocket attack, is one of just two churches in Gaza, both of which are sheltering internally displaced people. Israel’s military has not responded to repeated requests for comment on the shootings.

In Gaza, people had been without cell phone or internet service since Thursday before it was partly restored over the weekend.

Hussein Hamouda, who like many Palestinians in Gaza has been forced to move south to avoid Israeli bombs, says he’s seen several communications blackouts in the last 10 weeks, but none as bad as the latest one.

“We can’t communicate with our friends, loved ones, relatives, and the outside world,” Hamouda says. “Before, it used to last a day, but this time it lasted two, two and a half days. We felt like we were outside the world’s scope, cut off.”

“A war for our existence”

Speaking Saturday, Netanyahu reiterated the need to continue the war in the face of international criticism.

“Citizens of Israel. We are fighting a war for our existence, in which we are committed to fight until victory, despite international pressure, and the unbearable heavy prices that the war is exacting from us in our precious sons and daughters,” Netanyahu said, mourning the deaths of the three hostages, all men in their 20s.

On Monday, Israel’s military said it was continuing combat operations to eradicate Hamas in Gaza. During a raid at the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, the military says it located the equivalent of $1.37 million in funds inside a senior Hamas leader’s house. “The funds were found in suitcases alongside numerous weapons,” the IDF said. It said the money was designated for “terrorist activity.”

The Israeli military also said its troops had struck Hamas infrastructure where explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades, a cache of mortars and ammunition were found.

NPR’s Scott Neuman and Jason DeRose reported from Tel Aviv; NPR producer Anas Baba reported from Rafah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank

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