CAIRO: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Monday Washington’s support for Israel was “unshakable” but he urged its ally to do more to protect civilians as its war against Hamas brought yet more death and destruction to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Lloyd, speaking during a visit to Israel, said Hamas was a “fanatical terrorist group” which should never again be able to make attacks on Israel from Gaza.

His visit came amid growing concern from foreign governments and international organisations over the death toll among civilians in Gaza from Israeli bombardments as well as rising hunger and destitution.

The Gaza health ministry said on Monday that 19,453 Palestinians had been killed and 52,286 wounded in the Israeli assault on the Hamas-ruled enclave in more than two months of warfare.

US defence chief in Israel in push to ease intensity of Gaza offensive

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to achieve total victory over Hamas, whose fighters killed 1,200 people and took 240 hostages in the surprise Oct. 7 raid into Israel that triggered the war, according to Israeli tallies.

Austin told a news conference in Tel Aviv he had discussed with Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant how to reduce harm to civilians trapped in the battlefield. They also talked about a transition from major combat to a lower-intensity conflict.

“In any campaign, there will be phases,” Austin said. “We will also continue to urge the protection of civilians during conflict and to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza,” Austin said.

While the United States provides Israel with weapons and diplomatic support, it has recently sharpened its tone towards Netanyahu’s government. Last week President Joe Biden said Israel risked losing international support because of what he called its “indiscriminate” bombing.

Austin, however, offered reassurance on Monday, saying: “American support for Israel security is unshakable. Israel is not alone.”

Gallant meanwhile said Israel would gradually transition to the next phase of its operations in Gaza and displaced people would likely be able to return first to the north of the enclave.

Austin also renewed US calls for a two-state solution to the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying both Israelis and Palestinians “deserve a horizon of hope”.

Those remarks followed a meeting with Netanyahu, who over the weekend expressed pride in past opposition to the formation of Palestinian state.

Starvation

The war has left Gaza largely in ruins. Food is scarce for the territory’s 2.3 million people, basic services have collapsed and most people are homeless.

Israel strikes Gaza as pressure grows for ceasefire

Human Rights Watch on Monday accused Israeli forces of deliberately blocking delivery of water, food and fuel, razing agricultural areas and depriving people of items needed for survival.

“The Israeli government is using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare in the occupied Gaza Strip,” the New York-based HRW said in a report. “World leaders should be speaking out against this abhorrent war crime.”

Israel responded by calling HRW an “antisemitic and anti-Israeli” group with no moral right to criticise after its “silent” reaction to Hamas’ Oct. 7 rampage.

Israel denies targeting civilians and says Hamas is to blame for high casualties by embedding itself in residential areas. Government spokesperson Tal Heinrich also said there were zero restrictions on the amount of food and water allowed into Gaza.

Deaths mount

In unrelenting Israeli bombardments, 90 Palestinians died in the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza on Sunday, according to the Gaza health ministry. Hamas Aqsa radio reported an attack on Gaza’s main hospital, Al Shifa.

In Deir al-Balah, central Gaza, medics said 12 Palestinians had been killed and dozens wounded, while in Rafah in the south, an Israeli air strike on a house left at least four people dead.

An Israeli tank shell hit the maternity building inside Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, killing a 13-year-old girl who had lost a leg in a previous hit, the Gaza health ministry said.

On the Israeli side, the military released the names of four more soldiers killed in combat in Gaza, making it 126 dead in the strip since its ground invasion began in late October.

Residents reported gunfire between Israeli soldiers and Hamas fighters in various spots up and down narrow Gaza, with the saying they had launched a series of attacks.

Reuters was unable to verify the state of operations or claims from either side.

Father-of-four Raed, 45, who has moved his family twice, said Gazans were exhausted trying to stay alive.

“Money has lost its value, most of the items are not available. We rose from our beds after surviving a night of bombardment to tour the streets searching for food, we got tired,” he said in the Rafah area. “We want peace, truce, ceasefire, whatever they call it, but please stop the war.”

Heightened violence also continued in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where four Palestinians were killed in an Israeli army raid on the Faraa refugee camp, the Palestinian health ministry said on Monday.

Austin said he had discussed the need for urgent action to stabilize the West Bank, and that attacks by Jewish settlers against Palestinians there must stop.

Hostage deaths shake Israel

Two US officials told Reuters that CIA chief Bill Burns would meet Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and the head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency in Warsaw on Monday to discuss a potential new deal to secure the release of the Israeli hostages.

But Hamas official Osama Hamdan, speaking in Beirut, said that while the group was open to initiatives from Qatar and Egypt on a hostage exchange, any negotiations were off the table until Israel stops its war on Gaza.

Hamas’ armed wing posted a video message showing three elderly Israeli hostages pleading for their release.

One man, who identified himself as 79-year-old Haiem Bery, said in Hebrew that they had chronic illnesses and were living in very harsh conditions.

“We are the generation who built the foundation for the creation of Israel. We are the ones who started the IDF military. We don’t understand why we have been abandoned here,” he said.

“You have to release us from here. It does not matter the cost. We don’t want to be casualties as a direct result of the IDF military airstrikes,” he said.

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