US Defense Secretary talks to Israel about more 'surgical' approach in Gaza

Israeli soldiers operate in the Gaza Strip amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas on Dec 18, 2023. [Reuters]

U.S Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has stressed the importance of Israel's curbing of civilian casualties in densely populated Gaza and has reiterated the ‘unshakable’ U.S. commitment to supporting Israel in its war against Hamas.

During a joint press conference in Israel on Monday with counterpart Yoav Gallant, Austin called for the return of the rest of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza and affirmed “Israel’s bedrock right” to self-defense. He added that the United States “will continue to urge the protection of civilians during conflict and to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.”

“We also have some great thoughts about how to transition from high-intensity operations to lower-intensity and more surgical operations,” Austin said. “We had great discussions on all of those issues.”

Austin also called for a postwar, two-state solution between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors, stressing that instability and insecurity only play into the hands of Hamas.

Gallant said Israel would gradually transition to the next phase of its operations in Gaza, allowing the local population to first return to the north of the coastal strip.

"In every area where we achieve our mission, we will be able to transition gradually to the next phase and start working on bringing back the local population," Gallant said. "That means that it can be achieved maybe sooner in the north rather than in the south."

Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council is expected to vote Tuesday on a resolution calling for humanitarian aid monitoring and access in the Gaza Strip.

The draft on the table Monday morning called for an “urgent and sustainable cessation of hostilities" for humanitarian access to deliver aid. But this language is expected to be watered down to a “suspension” of hostilities or something possibly weaker to satisfy the Americans, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because discussions have been private.

Human Rights Watch said Monday that the Israeli government “is using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare in the occupied Gaza Strip, which is a war crime.” The organization stated that high-ranking Israeli officials “have made public statements expressing their aim to deprive civilians in Gaza of food, water and fuel – statements reflecting a policy being carried out by Israeli forces.”

Human Rights Watch added, “Other Israeli officials have publicly stated that humanitarian aid to Gaza would be conditioned either on the release of hostages unlawfully held by Hamas or Hamas’ destruction.” Israel has not responded to the report.

The U.N. food agency reported on December 14 that 56% of Gaza’s households were experiencing “severe levels of hunger,” up from 38% two weeks earlier.

A Security Council resolution earlier this month calling for a humanitarian cease-fire failed, as the United States used its veto to halt the measure. The U.S. and Israel have argued that a cease-fire would benefit Hamas.

The U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly supported a similar resolution shortly afterward, but its resolutions are nonbinding.

Hamas released a short video Monday showing three elderly male Israeli hostages sitting next to each other, pleading for their unconditional release.

Chaim Peri, 79, Yoram Metzger, 80, and Amiram Cooper, 84, were taken hostage by militants with about 240 others during Hamas’ October 7 terror attack on southern Israel.

Sitting in the middle, Peri speaks to the camera, saying he and other elderly hostages who have health issues are "suffering greatly in very harsh conditions."

Hamas, a U.S.-, U.K.- and EU-designated terrorist organization, posted the video on the Telegram messaging service. Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari called it "a criminal, terrorist video" that shows "Hamas' cruelty against very elderly civilians, innocents who need medical care.”

"Chaim, Yoram and Amiram — I hope that you hear me this evening," Hagari said in a televised briefing. "Know this: We are doing everything, everything, in order to return you back safely."

After Hamas posted the video, families of Israelis still held hostage by Hamas in Gaza protested outside Israel’s Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, demanding the immediate release of their loved ones.

Israel vowed to destroy Hamas, which governs Gaza, after the militant group sent fighters into Israel on October 7, killing around 1,200 people, mostly civilians. Hamas also took about 240 people hostage. More than 100 of the hostages remain in Gaza.

The Israeli offensive has killed more than 19,400 people in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, says the conflict has forced an estimated 85% of Gaza’s population from their homes, with many of them trying to find a safe place to stay at U.N. shelters in southern Gaza that are several times over their intended capacity.

UNRWA said 135 of its staff members have been killed and 115 of its installations damaged since the conflict began in early October.