JERUSALEM: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is set to encourage Israel to de-escalate significant military operations in Gaza during his visit on Monday, testing the ability of the US to influence its staunch support for the offensive and mitigate its severe impact on Palestinian civilians.
Over the weekend, France, the UK, and Germany, close allies of Israel, joined global demands for a ceasefire. Israeli protestors are urging the government to resume talks with a militant group following the accidental killing of three hostages waving a white flag by Israeli troops.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists on continuing the fight until Hamas is ousted from power, its military capabilities are dismantled, and approximately 129 hostages held since the Oct. 7 attack are released.
Despite international calls for a ceasefire, the US has vetoed such initiatives and provided military aid to Israel while urging measures to minimize harm to civilians. The 10-week conflict with Hamas has claimed over 18,700 Palestinian lives, leaving northern Gaza severely damaged.
Approximately 1.9 million Palestinians, nearly 85 percent of Gaza’s population, have evacuated their homes, seeking refuge in UN-operated shelters and tent camps in the southern part of the besieged region.
Traveling with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. CQ Brown, Secretary Austin is expected to push Israeli leaders to shift toward a more targeted approach. This phase would involve precise operations aimed at eliminating Hamas leaders, destroying tunnels, and rescuing hostages.
Under US pressure, Israel provided more detailed evacuation instructions during its entry into Khan Younis earlier this month. However, Palestinians argue that no place in Gaza is safe as Israel continues strikes across the territory.
Israel reopened its main cargo crossing with Gaza in response to another US request for increased aid delivery. Still, the amount remains below pre-war levels, hindering assistance efforts as fighting continues in the south.
Unprecedented Devastation and Loss of Life
The conflict began with a surprise attack by Hamas on Oct. 7, overwhelming Israel’s border defenses. Thousands of militants caused significant casualties and abductions, leading Israel to launch one of the 21st century’s deadliest air and ground offensives.
The death toll in Gaza has exceeded 18,700, with thousands more casualties presumed under the rubble. The Health Ministry, run by Hamas, does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths but notes a majority of victims are women and children.
Israel attributes civilian deaths to Hamas, accusing them of using human shields in residential areas. The military seldom comments on individual strikes that frequently result in civilian casualties.
Hospital Incidents and WHO Response
Intense fighting around Gaza’s hospitals, overcrowded with patients and displaced individuals, has rendered most of them inoperable. Israel alleges militants use health facilities for shelter, a claim health officials deny.
The World Health Organization (WHO) expressed dismay over an Israeli raid on Kamal Adwan Hospital in northern Gaza, reporting at least eight patient deaths, including a 9-year-old. The military contends the hospital was a Hamas command center, but evidence was not provided.
A similar standoff occurred at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City last month, where Israel claimed Hamas concealed a command center. The WHO, working to restore services at Shifa, described its emergency department as a “bloodbath,” with severe shortages of food and water.
Regional Tensions and Escalations
Daily border exchanges of fire between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah have occurred since the war began. Iran-backed groups have targeted US interests in Syria and Iraq, while Houthi rebels in Yemen have attacked ships in the Red Sea.
Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari warned that Hezbollah is dragging Lebanon into a potentially devastating war. In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, nearly 300 Palestinians have been killed during the war, marking the deadliest year for Palestinians since 2005.
US defense leaders aim to prevent a broader regional conflict through a sustained US military presence and by urging Israel to reduce operations. President Joe Biden cautioned that Israel risks losing international support due to indiscriminate bombing.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant stated last week that major combat operations against Hamas would continue for several more months.