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

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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 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 that top Biden administration officials have made for months, Austin said there was a “moral necessity and a strategic imperative” to assist and protect civilians in the Hamas-controlled strip, where local authorities say more than 30,000 people have been killed.

“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 Gaza’s southern city of 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 attacks, did not reference the delivery of aid or protection of civilians in opening remarks with Austin. He 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.

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 attacks, which killed at least 1,200 people and resulted in the taking of 253 hostages.

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

Gallant, whom a senior defense official described as a “good friend” of Austin, met with national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday.

The conflict has 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.

The senior defense official, speaking to reporters after the meeting, said that the Biden administration supports Israel’s goal of dismantling remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah but said that “finding an alternative approach” that protects Palestinian civilians “is really the priority.”

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 struggles 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 ease the death toll in Gaza.

The senior defense official declined to detail the alternative approaches the Biden 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.

The 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.

Dan Lamothe and Alex Horton contributed to this report.

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