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US defence secretary reasserts support but urges Israel to change tactics in Gaza

The US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, has held talks with Israeli officials about shifting away from large-scale aerial and ground operations in the Gaza Strip to a new phrase in the war focused on the precise targeting of Hamas leaders.

“Hamas should never again be able to project terror from Gaza into Israel. This is Israel’s operation; I’m not here to dictate timelines or terms,” Austin told reporters after meeting with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his defence counterpart, Yoav Gallant, in Tel Aviv on Monday. He added that protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza was “both a moral duty and a strategic imperative”.

Austin’s comments were followed by remarks from Gallant, who said: “I can tell you that soon we will be able to distinguish between different areas in Gaza … We will continue to operate in Gaza with different levels of intensity, perhaps sooner in the north.” Gallant said the new phase would allow some of the 85% of people in Gaza displaced from their homes to return to the northern part of the strip.

Austin was the latest in a steady stream of senior figures in the Biden administration to visit Israel since the unprecedented attack on Israel by the Palestinian militant group in which about 1,200 people were killed and another 250 were taken as hostages. The trip to Israel is part of a wider Middle East tour, as the conflict in Gaza threatens to spill over into a regional conflagration.

Washington, Israel’s closest ally, has provided intense military and diplomatic cover for the war in Gaza, where the death toll is approaching 20,000, but last week Joe Biden warned that Israel was losing international support because of its “indiscriminate bombing”.

The UN security council postponed a vote calling for a “sustainable cessation of hostilities” to give more time for diplomats to meet US objections to the wording of the draft resolution.

The vote was due late on Monday, but the US said it could not support a call for a “cessation of hostilities”, but might accept reference to a “suspension of hostilities.”

The Arab countries negotiating the text said they had been encouraged to see that the White House was apparently trying to find wording that it could support – as opposed to simply vetoing, as it had done for previous resolutions calling for a humanitarian pause on 18 October and on an urgent humanitarian ceasefire on 9 December.

Divisions within the Biden administration have been growing, with some officials saying the US has underestimated the scale of disillusionment in the global south over perceived hypocrisy in calling out Russian war crimes in Ukraine, but finding a multitude of reasons to justify the large-scale killings of Palestinians in Gaza.

Austin and Netanyahu discussed plans for Israel to switch to more surgical, intelligence-led operations aimed at killing Hamas leaders, destroying tunnels and rescuing hostages, in order to stem the loss of civilian life, the US official said.

“America’s commitment to Israel is unwavering and no individual, group or state should test our resolve,” Austin said in a statement released by Netanyahu’s office.

“I’m also here to discuss how we can best support Israel on a path to lasting security and that means tackling urgent needs first. We must get more humanitarian assistance in to the nearly 2 million displaced people in Gaza and we must distribute that aid better,” he added.

Hamas’s armed wing meanwhile posted a new video message in which three elderly Israeli hostages pleaded for their release.

One man, who identified himself as Haiem Bery, 79, said he was being held in harsh conditions with other elderly hostages suffering chronic illnesses.

“You have to release us from here. It does not matter the cost. We don’t want to be casualties as a direct result of the IDF military airstrikes. Release us with no conditions. Don’t let us grow old here,” he said in Hebrew.

The one-minute video ends with all three men repeating the phrase in unison: “Don’t let us grow old here.”

Bombing in the Jabaliya area in northern Gaza on Monday killed at least 50 people, the health ministry in the besieged Hamas-run strip said; strikes in the same area killed another 110 people the day before. The fierce fighting has made it difficult to transport the dead and wounded to hospitals, residents said.

Conditions in Gaza are dire. The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Philippe Lazzarini, said on Monday that he “would not be surprised if people start dying of hunger, or a combination of hunger, disease, weak immunity”.

Over the weekend, France joined the UK and Germany in calling for an immediate truce in the 10-week-old conflict, as Israel’s western partners grow uneasy at the devastating human impact of the war.

On Monday, the UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said too many civilian lives had been lost in Gaza, repeating the call made on Sunday by his foreign secretary, David Cameron, for a “sustainable ceasefire”.

“Far too many civilians have been killed in Gaza,” the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, posted on X, formerly Twitter. “Certainly, we are witnessing an appalling lack of distinction in Israel’s military operation in Gaza.”

Domestic pressure to resume hostage and ceasefire negotiations is also growing after the Israeli army shot and killed three men kidnapped by Hamas on Friday.

Israeli media reported that the Mossad spy agency chief travelled to Qatar, a key mediator with Hamas, over the weekend, and reportedly met Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, and the CIA director, William Burns, in Warsaw on Monday.

Doha said there were “ongoing diplomatic efforts to renew the humanitarian pause”. During a week-long truce at the end of November 100 hostages, mostly Israeli, were released in exchange for 240 Palestinian women and children held in Israeli jails.

After meeting Austin, Netanyahu reiterated “Israel’s commitment to achieve total victory against Hamas”, and his ministers have said the war could last several more months.

The Gaza war could yet spiral into a regional conflict: Israel and Hezbollah continue to exchange fire across the blue line boundary with Lebanon, and several major international shipping companies have announced they are suspending transit through the Red Sea after repeated attacks on vessels by Yemen’s Houthi rebel group. The Houthis say they are acting in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, more than 300 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the war, mostly in confrontations with the Israeli army in raids or violent protests.

Also on Monday, the US-based Human Rights Watch accused Israel of the war crime of deliberately starving Gaza’s population of 2.3 million, pointing to statements by senior Israeli officials expressing the intent to deprive civilians of food, water and fuel, and linking the entry of aid to the release of hostages.

The Israeli government hit back at the rights group, accusing it of being an “antisemitic and anti-Israeli organisation”.

Source: The Guardian