Austin to Israeli Defense Minister: ‘Civilian casualties [are] simply too high’ in Gaza

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant held a meeting on Tuesday. This meeting took place one day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to cancel the delegation’s trip to the United States. The purpose of the delegation was to discuss plans for an operation in Rafah.

Israel withdrew its delegation following the U.S.’s decision to abstain from voting, allowing the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution urging an immediate humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza. This cease-fire is intended to last for the remaining days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and may extend beyond that period.

The resolution demanded the immediate release of hostages currently held by Hamas terrorists, without explicitly linking it to a temporary cease-fire. Additionally, the resolution emphasized the importance of the humanitarian pause as a stepping stone towards achieving a lasting and sustainable ceasefire.

In a brief statement prior to their meeting at the Pentagon on Tuesday, Austin emphasized the importance of addressing humanitarian concerns in Gaza. He highlighted the significant number of Palestinian civilians seeking refuge in Rafah, which currently stands at 1.5 million. Additionally, Austin stressed the urgent need to tackle the imminent risk of famine in the region.

“In Gaza today, the civilian casualties are alarmingly high while the level of humanitarian aid remains insufficient. The humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza is worsening, amplifying the already dire situation,” Austin expressed prior to his meeting with Gallant. The Israeli Defense Minister had visited the Pentagon following his discussions at the White House and State Department on Monday.”

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Austin has raised concerns about humanitarian priorities as Israel prepares for a military operation in Rafah, a city located in the southern part of Gaza that shares a border with Egypt. Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated that this campaign is necessary to eradicate Hamas. The White House has expressed significant apprehension that Israel may not take sufficient measures to prevent civilian casualties while targeting Hamas militants in the city.

The Israeli military has announced its intention to relocate the displaced Palestinians in Rafah to “humanitarian islands” located in the heart of the territory before any potential invasion.

In October, Hamas, a designated terrorist group by the U.S., launched an assault on Israel, triggering a prolonged period of conflict.

According to Gaza’s Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health, Israeli forces have been responsible for the deaths of over 31,000 individuals in the Gaza Strip since Oct. 7. On the other hand, Israeli officials report that at least 1,200 people have been killed by Hamas and other Palestinian militants in Israel during the same time period.

“We maintain a shared objective of defeating Hamas, and as such, we will explore alternative strategies for targeting Hamas operatives,” Austin expressed. He further emphasized the importance of addressing the pressing humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the need to do so promptly and effectively.

Gallant did not discuss the humanitarian conditions or consider “alternative” military strategies in Gaza or Rafah. However, he did provide a preview of the upcoming discussion on the ongoing security collaboration between the United States and Israel.

Gallant expressed his focus on two key objectives during his discussion: the progress in Gaza and the strategies to accomplish their goals. He emphasized the importance of dismantling the Hamas organization and ensuring the safe return of Israeli hostages.

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Austin emphasized the United States’ commitment as an ally to Israel, reiterating their shared goal of defeating Hamas.

“We have an unwavering security bond. Israel can always count on the United States as its closest friend,” stated Austin.

Austin’s assessment of the situation on the ground in Gaza as a “catastrophe” is a straightforward and direct evaluation, which goes beyond what the Pentagon has previously conveyed. The Biden administration has consistently highlighted the severe humanitarian consequences that are looming in the Gaza Strip.

During his meeting with Gallant on Monday, Secretary Antony Blinken expressed his opposition to a significant ground operation in Rafah, as the U.S. shifted its stance by abstaining from a veto at the Security Council, according to the State Department.

Austin did not publicly oppose a military campaign in Rafah. However, he did call for additional humanitarian measures and emphasized the need for security “alternatives.” He also advocated for increased efforts in providing aid, going beyond the aid corridors that are currently being led by the Pentagon.

“We must take urgent action and provide assistance immediately to prevent famine. Our efforts to establish a temporary humanitarian corridor by sea will contribute, but the crucial factor remains the expansion of aid deliveries by land,” he emphasized.

According to a recent report, the Gaza Strip is facing an imminent famine in the northern region due to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. The report highlights the persistently high levels of food insecurity in the area.

President Joe Biden has recently announced a crucial military mission to construct a port in the Mediterranean Sea along Gaza’s coast. The primary objective of this endeavor is to facilitate the delivery of essential humanitarian aid to those in need.

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According to a senior defense official, the main highlight of the port will be a temporary pier that can accommodate hundreds of extra truckloads of assistance on a daily basis.

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