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Defense secretary meets with Israeli counterpart as tensions grow

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at the Pentagon on Tuesday as tensions soared this week between the U.S. and Israel over the war in Gaza, where more than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed.

During the meeting, Austin discussed efforts to minimize casualties in Gaza and get more humanitarian aid into the coastal enclave, according to a senior U.S. defense official, who described it as “very productive.”

The two also discussed the looming Israeli military operation in Rafah, a southern Gaza city on the border with Egypt that is acting as a refugee camp for more than a million Palestinians sheltering from the war.

In remarks welcoming Gallant to the Pentagon, Austin reiterated that the United States’s “goal is to make Israel and the region safer and more security” but also to protect “Palestinian civilians from harm.”

“In Gaza today, the number of civilian casualties is far too high, and the amount of humanitarian aid is far too low,” Austin said. “Gaza is suffering a humanitarian catastrophe, and the situation is getting even worse.”

Gallant said in opening remarks that he remained committed to “the destruction of Hamas organization and bringing back the Israeli hostages back home.”

In the discussion, Austin proposed Israel find an alternative to a major military operation in Rafah, according to a senior U.S. defense official, which is in line with a new push from the Biden administration in recent weeks to avoid widespread destruction in the southern city.

The official said those alternatives could be “precision targeting” of senior Hamas officials.

“That, in fact, has even been effective in targeting some Hamas leaders elsewhere in Gaza,” the official said. “The secretary, of course, is very experienced, and many in our department are very experienced with some of these very challenging operations working in urban environments to uproot terrorist organizations that are deeply embedded in civilian populations.

“So, we do have experience to draw on, and that doesn’t mean there’s an exact parallel between the situation and any previous situation. But it does mean that when we develop ideas, it has some basis in experience,” the official continued.

The official said those ideas “have the potential to achieve the dual objectives of protecting the civilians who are currently in Rafah and defeating the Hamas battalions that are in Rafah.”

“We do believe that is possible, and we believe we have ideas that can be relevant to achieving those dual objectives,” the official added.

On humanitarian aid, Austin also pushed Gallant “to diversify and scale up aid entry points into Gaza and to work with all the necessary international partners to address the problem of international aid distribution inside Gaza.”

The U.S. is airdropping humanitarian aid into Gaza, and it is planning to construct a port, but the Biden administration says those are not substitutes for aid trucks coming in through land crossings, which Israel controls but has been criticized for limiting the amount of aid coming in.

“These are efforts that the secretary, the minister, have been speaking about and working together on really for many weeks,” the official said. “So, this was a continuation of that dialogue.”

The meeting comes after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled an upcoming delegation he had planned to send to Washington this week to discuss Rafah and other concerns.

Netanyahu expressed concern that the U.S. on Monday abstained from a vote at the United Nations Security Council on a resolution that calls for a ceasefire in Gaza for the rest of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that ends in about two weeks.

The resolution also calls for the release of hostages, but Netanyahu slammed the U.S. for abstaining and therefore allowing the measure to pass, which he said gives Hamas free rein to continue holding hostages while getting a ceasefire.

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