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Tags: israel | hamas | war | defense | secretary | lloyd austin

Defense Secretary Austin Expected to Press Israel on Gaza Operation

Monday, 18 December 2023 07:58 AM EST

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.

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.

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, a military spokesman, denied Israel was restricting the amount of aid and blamed the suffering of civilians on Hamas, accusing the militants of stealing it.

The war began with an unprecedented surprise attack by Hamas that overwhelmed Israel's border defenses. Thousands of militants rampaged across southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducting around 240 men, women and children.

Hamas and other militants are still holding an estimated 129 captives after most of the rest were freed in return for Israel's release of 240 Palestinian prisoners during a truce last month. Hamas has said no more hostages will be released until the war ends.

More than 18,700 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Health Ministry, which has said most are women and minors, and that thousands more are buried under the rubble. The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths.

Israel’s military says 127 of its soldiers have been killed in the Gaza ground offensive. It says it has killed thousands of militants, without providing evidence.

Israel blames civilian deaths on Hamas, saying it uses them as human shields. But the military rarely comments on individual strikes.

At least 110 people were killed in Israel's bombardment of residential buildings in the urban Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza on Sunday, Munir al-Boursh, a senior Health Ministry official, told Al Jazeera television.

The area has seen heavy fighting in recent days. "No one can retrieve the martyrs or take the wounded to hospitals," said Amal Radwan, who is staying at a U.N. shelter in Jabaliya.

The military meanwhile released pictures of what it said was around $1.3 million in Israeli currency found in the home of a senior Hamas operative in the camp.

Heavy fighting around Gaza's hospitals has forced most of them to shut down. Israel accuses militants of sheltering in health facilities and has provided evidence in some cases. Health officials deny the allegations.

The World Health Organization said it was "appalled" by an Israeli raid on northern Gaza’s Kamal Adwan Hospital over the last several days. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said late Sunday that at least eight patients had died, including a 9-year-old, and that several had fled on foot because ambulances could not reach the facility.

The military said troops operating in and around the hospital had detained dozens of suspected militants, some of whom had taken part in the Oct. 7 attack, and had seized "numerous" weapons. It said the hospital had been used as a command center by Hamas, without providing evidence.

The war has repeatedly spilled into other areas of the region.

Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah have traded fire along the border nearly every day since the war began, and other Iran-backed militant groups have attacked U.S. targets in Syria and Iraq. Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi rebels have targeted ships in the Red Sea with missiles and drones.

A U.S. official said multiple projectiles were fired at the Swan Atlantic, a Cayman Islands-flagged tanker, in the Red Sea off Yemen on Monday. The official said the USS Carney, an American warship, responded, without providing further details. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about the attack and so spoke on condition of anonymity.

In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, over 300 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the war, including four overnight during an Israeli military raid in the built-up Faraa refugee camp, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.

This has been the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since 2005. Most have been killed during military raids, which often ignite gunbattles, or during violent demonstrations.

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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.
israel, hamas, war, defense, secretary, lloyd austin
Monday, 18 December 2023 07:58 AM
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