Pentagon urges ‘alternatives’ in Israel meeting, with few details

by Tommy Grant

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told his Israeli counterpart Tuesday that the number of civilian casualties in Gaza has been “far too high” and that the strip is “suffering a humanitarian catastrophe.”

He spoke before a meeting with Israel’s Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant, during which Austin said Jerusalem needs to consider other options to a ground invasion of Rafah, where more than a million Palestinian civilians are sheltering.

But a senior defense official, speaking with reporters afterward on the condition of anonymity, wouldn’t say what those “alternatives” are.

The invasion of Gaza began in the north, as Israel sought to destroy the terrorist group Hamas, which killed more than 1,200 Israeli civilians last October. The Israel Defense Forces have since pushed into Gaza City but failed to kill the group’s most senior leaders. Israel’s government has since been preparing to invade Rafah, a major city in Gaza’s south, where Hamas battalions have migrated.

Almost half of Gaza’s population has fled to Rafah since the war began. Many civilians have already escaped conflict more than once, the official said. An invasion would force them to do so again, and risk further civilian casualties. The Gaza Health Ministry estimates more than 32,000 Palestinians have died during the war, roughly two-thirds of whom are women and children.

Rafah sits near the Egyptian border and is the largest entry point for humanitarian support into Gaza. An invasion would risk Jerusalem’s relationship with Cairo, the official said, while also choking the flow of aid when it needs to widen, the official said. President Joe Biden said this month that the U.S. would build a pier on Gaza’s coast to allow in more assistance. Six ships with personnel will arrive within the next few weeks and start construction, the official said.

“The amount of humanitarian aid [in Gaza] is far too low,” Austin said in a short press conference.

Tuesday’s meeting follows a public spat between the U.S. and Israel earlier this week. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recalled a group of senior advisors who also planned to soon visit Washington, after the U.S. abstained from a non-binding UN resolution urging a ceasefire. America had previously vetoed such resolutions, though a spokesman for the National Security Council insisted on Monday that there was no change in U.S. policy.

Netanyahu this week also recalled Israel’s negotiators from Doha, Qatar, who were trying to make a deal for the release of hostages still held by Hamas.

Gallant nonetheless traveled with a list of weapons his country wants from Washington. The administration still supports such aid, which the American defense official said has “flowed more rapidly than ever” since last October, and isn’t weighing any restrictions on how Israel will use it.

Shortly before Gallant’s visit, Israel submitted assurances to the U.S. that it would comply with human rights laws as required under an executive memorandum Biden signed in February after growing pressure from Democrats in Congress. The memorandum references U.S. laws that cut off security assistance to military units that violate human rights or to countries that block U.S. humanitarian aid.

Former administration officials and many Democratic lawmakers say multiple administrations have not held Israel to these standards, despite credible reports of human rights abuses and the Israeli restrictions on aid trucks into Gaza.

“It’s hard to see how the Biden administration could with a straight face conclude that the Netanyahu government has provided credible and reliable assurances that it will facilitate and not arbitrarily restrict humanitarian assistance to Gaza when at this very moment they’re doing that,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., told Defense News last week. “Obtaining written assurances is only part of the requirement of [the memorandum], the other part is that they be deemed credible and reliable assurances.”

Under Biden’s memorandum, the Pentagon and State Department must assess Israel’s compliance with its human rights assurances in May, with noncompliance possibly resulting in the suspension of military aid as stipulated by existing U.S. laws.

The U.S. is instead trying to change Israel’s behavior in private. Gallant and Austin have spoken over the phone around 40 times, most of which came after last October. They spoke privately in more detail about alternatives to a ground invasion of Rafah, said the official — who wouldn’t explain further other than saying Israel would need to protect civilians before any fighting and also use precision strikes.

“This was the first of what I think will be quite a number of conversations,” the official said.

Noah Robertson is the Pentagon reporter at Defense News. He previously covered national security for the Christian Science Monitor. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and government from the College of William & Mary in his hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia.

Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

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