United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin says Washington will continue to support Israel in its war with Hamas but urged its ally to do more to protect civilians in Gaza amid growing calls for a ceasefire.
Speaking alongside Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv on Monday, Austin said US support for Israel was “unshakeable”, as the death toll from the Israeli assault on Gaza surpassed 19,000, according to Palestinian health authorities.
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Austin said he had discussed with Gallant how to reduce harm to civilians trapped in the battlefield. They also talked about a transition from major combat to a lower-intensity conflict.
“In any campaign, there will be phases,” Austin said. “We will also continue to urge the protection of civilians during conflict and to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza,” Austin said.
While the US provides Israel with weapons and diplomatic support, it has recently sharpened its tone towards Netanyahu’s government. Last week President Joe Biden said Israel risked losing international support because of what he called its “indiscriminate” bombing.
Austin, however, offered reassurance on Monday, saying: “American support for Israel security is unshakable. Israel is not alone.”
Gallant meanwhile said Israel would gradually transition to the next phase of its operations in Gaza and displaced people would likely be able to return first to the north of the enclave.
Austin’s visit came amid growing concern from foreign governments and international organisations over civilian deaths in Gaza and a deepening humanitarian crisis.
Earlier, the international human rights organisation Human Rights Watch said that Israel was “deliberately blocking the delivery of water, food and fuel,” to people in Gaza and “using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare”.
The Israeli assault on Gaza began after Hamas killed around 1,200 people in southern Israel and took about 240 others captive, according to Israeli authorities.
Israel’s relentless bombardment and ground invasion has killed at least 19,453 people, most of them women and children, according to Palestinian health authorities, and levelled entire neighbourhoods and displaced more than 80 percent of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has supported Israel’s campaign, said on Monday that “too many civilians” have been killed in the fighting, and expressed support for a “sustainable ceasefire”.
While Austin has said that more aid must be delivered to the people of Gaza, the US has found itself increasingly isolated over its stance on the war between Israel and Hamas.
Last week, the US cast one of the few dissenting votes against a UN General Assembly resolution calling for a ceasefire that passed with overwhelming support.
The UN Security Council is scheduled to hold a ceasefire vote on Monday, after the US also vetoed a previous resolution.
International leaders have also voiced concern over the possibility of a wider regional escalation as the war drags on.
Austin said on Monday that the US was leading efforts to address a series of attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebel group that have disrupted commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The Iran-backed group says the attacks are an effort to pressure Israel to halt its attacks on Gaza.
“In the Red Sea, we’re leading a multinational maritime task force to uphold the bedrock principle of freedom of navigation,” Austin said.
The Pentagon chief also warned against greater involvement by the powerful Iran-backed group Hezbollah, which has traded fire with Israel from southern Lebanon since the fighting began but has thus far avoided a larger confrontation.
US officials have said that William Burns, the director of the CIA, the US intelligence agency, is meeting with his Israeli counterpart and the prime minister of Qatar to discuss a potential deal to secure the release of additional captives held by Hamas.
A previous deal, which Qatar and Egypt helped to mediate, secured a seven-day truce and the release of dozens of captives in exchange for the release of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.