Israel will gradually start transition to the next phase of operations in Gaza, the country’s defense minister said on Monday following talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin about lower intensity combat and ways to reduce harm to civilians.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said the local population would likely be able to first return to Gaza’s north, which was the most populated area of the Mediterranean enclave before Israel’s invasion in retaliation for the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.
Gallant said Israel had achieved most of its objectives in the northern part of the strip, where it had destroyed Hamas’s rocket launchers, tunnels, and command centers, and killed hundreds of militants.
He said the next phase would focus on the southern part of the strip, where Israel believes Hamas’s top leaders, including Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif, are hiding, along with thousands of fighters and some Israeli hostages.
“We will not stop until we have eliminated the Hamas threat and restored security and stability to our citizens,” Gallant said in a statement. “We will continue to act with full military power, but with more precision and caution, to avoid unnecessary casualties among the civilian population.”
Gallant’s remarks came after he met with Austin, who arrived in Israel on Monday as part of a regional tour that also includes Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.
Austin is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Israel since the war began on October 7, when Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel with thousands of rockets, killing dozens of civilians and injuring hundreds more.
The U.S. has publicly expressed its support for Israel’s right to self-defense, but has also urged it to de-escalate the situation and pursue a cease-fire.
According to Israeli media reports, Austin conveyed a message from President Joe Biden, who has been under pressure from some members of his own party and human rights groups to take a tougher stance on Israel and push for an end to the hostilities.
A Devastating War
Biden has also expressed concern over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where more than 19,000 Palestinians, have been killed, and tens of thousands have been displaced.
The UN says more than half of Gaza’s 2 million people lack access to clean water, electricity, and health care, and warns of a looming humanitarian catastrophe.
Austin discussed with Gallant and other Israeli officials the ways to protect civilians in Gaza and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid, as well as the prospects for a political solution to the conflict.
Austin also reiterated the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security and the U.S.-Israel strategic partnership, and praised the cooperation between the two countries’ militaries.
The U.S. has provided Israel with $3.8 billion in annual military aid, as well as advanced weapons systems, such as the Iron Dome missile defense system, which has intercepted about 90% of the rockets fired by Hamas.
The U.S. has also blocked several attempts by the UN Security Council to issue a statement calling for a cease-fire, saying it would not help to de-escalate the situation and that it preferred to pursue quiet diplomacy.
However, some analysts say the U.S. may have more leverage over Israel than it appears, and that Austin’s visit could signal a shift in the U.S. approach.
“The U.S. has a lot of influence over Israel, not only because of the military and economic aid, but also because of the political and diplomatic cover it provides,” said Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of international relations at Regent’s University London and a senior consulting research fellow at Chatham House.
“Austin’s visit could be a way of telling Israel that enough is enough, and that it’s time to stop the escalation and move to a more surgical and intelligence-based operation against Hamas,” he told Al Jazeera.
Mekelberg added that the U.S. also has an interest in restoring stability in the region and preventing the conflict from spilling over to other countries or fueling extremism.
“The U.S. wants to focus on other priorities, such as China, Iran, and climate change, and it doesn’t want to see the Middle East in flames,” he said. “The U.S. also knows that the longer the war goes on, the more it will radicalize the Palestinian population and undermine the prospects for a peaceful solution.”