US and Israeli defense chiefs meet to discuss plans for Gaza as tensions between the allies spike

AP , Tuesday 26 Mar 2024

US defense leaders met with Israel's minister of defense on Tuesday as the United States warns against a ground invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah, but rising tensions between the two allies put any progress in question.

Yoav Gallant in a meeting with  Lloyd Austin
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, at far left, speaks while meeting with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, across table at far right, at the Pentagon, in Washington. AP


In remarks at the start of the Pentagon meeting, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said they would discuss alternative ways to target Hamas in Rafah, and he described civilian casualties in Gaza as “far too high” and aid deliveries as “far too low.” 

But he also repeated the belief that Israel has the right to defend itself and that the US would always be there to help.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, meanwhile, emphasized the ongoing threats to Israel and said the meeting would address ways to destroy Hamas and get the Israeli captives released, as well as plans to return displaced residents to their homes.

Austin made no mention of threats to limit or condition future military aid to Israel on humanitarian gains, a growing sentiment among members of Congress and others. 

Gallant only said that the meeting would include discussions about the important cooperation between the two countries to “ensure Israel's military edge and capabilities.”

The meeting, which also included Gen. CQ Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, comes as tensions have spiked between the US and Israel, stemming from the widespread global frustration over the escalating humanitarian crisis in Gaza and political discord surrounding efforts to achieve a ceasefire.

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly canceled a high-level visit to Washington this week in protest over the UN Security Council's decision to call for an immediate cease-fire. 

The US abstained, deciding not to use its veto power, and the resolution passed 14-0.

Israel says it cannot defeat Hamas without going into Rafah, where it claims the group has four battalions composed of thousands of fighters. 

But US officials are pressing Israel to forego a ground invasion and consider other ways to defeat Hamas.

“There are ways to go about addressing the threat of Hamas, while also taking into account civilian safety. A lot of those are from lessons, our lessons, conducting operations in urban environments,” Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said on Monday. 

“I would expect the conversations to cover those kinds of things.”

Since Oct.7, Israel’s brutal military campaign on Gaza has killed over 32,000 people, 70% of them women and children, according to the Palestinian health ministry, and driven a third of Gaza’s population to the brink of starvation. 

Hamas also took around 250 people captive. They are still holding around 100 hostages after most of the rest were freed during a cease-fire last year in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners.

The Security Council resolution calls for a ceasefire during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. 

Netanyahu accused the US of “retreating” from a “principled position” by allowing the vote to pass without conditioning the ceasefire on the release of captives.

The dispute signals an erosion in the US-Israel relationship that has been under a microscope for months as the military assault on Gaza continues, escalating the humanitarian crisis.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said the US was disappointed in the decision to cancel the delegation's visit this week. 

He said the talks with Gallant would likely include some of what the US had planned to discuss with the Israeli delegation on the possible Rafah invasion.

Gallant met Monday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. Kirby said those meetings, however, had not been intended as a replacement for the delegation meetings.

* This story was edited by Ahram Online.

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