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Middle East crisis: trade dispute between Hezbollah and Israel across the Lebanese border

Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III met at the Pentagon on Tuesday to discuss the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and Israel’s plan to invade the southern city of Rafah, which U.S. officials had warned that a major military operation could lead to catastrophe.

The meeting came amid rising tensions between the two allies, a day after the US decided to allow the passage of a UN resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Subsequently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had scrapped the plan to send a delegation to Washington to discuss the possible offensive in Rafah.

Mr. Gallant and Mr. Austin’s remarks before the meeting underscored the divide. While both emphasized their countries’ commitment to Israel’s security, Gallant stressed that in his view there is an urgent need to destroy Hamas, to ensure the release of the Israelis taken hostage in the Hamas-led attacks of October 7 and “ensure Israel’s military strength and capabilities.” .”

Mr. Austin focused on the war’s dire consequences for Palestinian civilians. “The number of civilian casualties is far too high and humanitarian aid is far too low,” he said. The safety of Palestinians in Rafah, where more than a million people are stuck, is a “top priority,” he added.

People pick up items from their homes after Israeli airstrikes in Rafah, Gaza, on Tuesday.Credit…Mohammed Salem/Reuters

After the meeting, a senior Defense Department official said Mr. Austin laid out the broad outlines of the Biden administration’s alternative approach to a major combat operation in Rafah. The main points were a focus on precision targeting to eradicate the Hamas leadership, credible and effective steps to evacuate civilians housed there, an increase in humanitarian aid and securing the Gaza-Egypt border.

The official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity in a phone call to discuss confidential discussions, said the Israelis were receptive to the priorities raised by Mr. Austin and that there would be more meetings in the future.

Senior administration officials said any Israeli operation that did not adequately mitigate risks to civilians in Rafah would be a mistake and would worsen terrible living conditions in the enclave. Without proper planning or preparation, the senior Defense Ministry official said, a major ground operation in Rafah could dramatically restrict the flow of already inadequate humanitarian aid to Gaza, when exactly the opposite should happen.

Speaking to reporters after his meeting with Mr. Austin, Mr. Gallant said Israel would not be deterred from its war aims. “Our goals are simple: we must destroy Hamas as a military and government organization in Gaza,” he said. “That means the military framework must be destroyed.”

“Hamas’ ability to operate as an organized military with central command and control must be destroyed,” he said. “There is no military capability, there is a terrorist capability.”

The Israeli minister said he also spoke with his American counterpart about maintaining Israel’s qualitative military advantage in the region (American officials said the sale of F-15 and F-35 fighter jets and Apache attack helicopters were discussed). . And Mr. Gallant said he and Mr. Austin discussed the urgency of efforts to recover the more than 100 hostages still held by Hamas and the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

“We discussed the humanitarian effort in Gaza – not just in terms of the delivery of aid, but also the actual issue of distribution,” Gallant said. “Hamas is doing everything it can to sabotage the delivery of aid and exert pressure at the expense of the Palestinian people. This includes route closures and looting.”

Mr. Gallant – who was also expected to meet with CIA Director William J. Burns, a key figure in negotiations between Israel and Hamas – met with Mr. Austin a day after the United States met at a Abstained from voting on a ceasefire-incendiary resolution in the UN Security Council, a decision that Netanyahu said “harms the war effort as well as efforts to free the hostages.”

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield noted the US abstention from a UN Security Council vote on Monday on a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. The measure was adopted.Credit…Angela Weiss/Agence France-Presse-Getty Images

Hopes for a breakthrough in talks to reach an agreement to end the fighting and release Israeli hostages appeared distant on Tuesday. Hamas said late Monday that the latest proposal on the table did not meet its demands.

According to two U.S. officials and an Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity, discussions in recent days discussed the number of Palestinian prisoners to be released, particularly those serving extended sentences for violence against Israelis, a sensitive matter.

Last week, the U.S. delegation led by Mr. Burns proposed a compromise to close the gap, which Israel accepted, according to the Israeli official and another person familiar with the negotiations. A Hamas statement on Monday appeared to reject this, saying it called for Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and “a real prisoner exchange.”

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