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US military pleads with Israel to take more measures to protect Gazans in war zone

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For months, the Biden administration has been pleading with Israel to do more to protect Palestinian civilians, who have borne the brunt of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign to dismantle Hamas in Gaza.

But now, on the eve of Israel’s longstanding threat to launch a massive attack Rafah Citythe gulf between U.S. advice and what Israel seems intent on doing could not be wider.

The Biden administration’s list of recommendations is long. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said this week that the United States wants Israel to conduct “more precise” operations and that the 2,000-pound bombs Israel uses in the densely populated Gaza Strip “could cause a lot of collateral damage.”

U.S. officials also hope Israel will lean more toward sending special operations forces to carry out targeted attacks against Hamas leaders and fighters, rather than relying on aerial bombardments and tank bombardments.

But the recommendations all boil down to this: The United States wants Israel to remove Palestinian civilians before launching any invasion of Rafah and do more to help humanitarian aid get in. In fact, if it were up to the Biden administration, Israel would not be involved in Rafah at all.

“We would certainly like to see no major fighting in Rafa,” Mr Austin told a Senate subcommittee hearing on Wednesday. He then linked Israel’s actions in Rafah to future U.S. arms assistance.

At a critical juncture in Israel’s war with Hamas, senior U.S. officials suspended a shipment of bombs and threatened to withhold more weapons if Israel proceeds with its plans to target Rafah.

The Biden administration has also said Israel must do more to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza, where more than 34,000 people have died and more than 77,000 have been injured, according to Gaza’s health authorities. Additionally, aid groups say 1.1 million Gazans are experiencing catastrophic hunger.

Mr. Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., and other senior U.S. military officials have cited past U.S. operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan as examples of what they think the Israeli military should and should not do. . Of course, civilians die in these operations, but not at the rate at which Palestinians in Gaza are being killed.

But in recent days, to the dismay of Biden administration officials, Israel has pressed ahead with its campaign, ordering 110,000 civilians out of Rafah, conducting airstrikes on targets on the edge of the city, deploying tanks and seizing border crossings. Egypt.

General Brown repeated the government’s message during a phone call with Israeli military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Hertz Halevi on Wednesday. Gen. Brown said in a brief interview Thursday in Tampa, Florida, that the two men had not discussed suspending weapons shipments.

He said the Israeli military has still not provided the Pentagon with a complete and detailed plan for Operation Rafah. He said his advice to his Israeli counterparts was to “make sure they focus on civilians.”

Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Nadav Shoshani said Thursday that Israeli forces have been urging civilians to get out of the way. He said that before deploying tanks to the Rafah crossing this week, Israel sent leaflets and text messages and broadcast through Arab media telling people to evacuate the area.

“As we have said from day one: our war is against Hamas, not the people of Gaza,” he added.

Israel has been using larger munitions such as 2,000-pound bombs to destroy tunnels and limit the ability of Hamas leaders and fighters to operate within its underground network, rather than the smaller-diameter 250-pound bombs that U.S. officials often emphasize. Larger bombs, while more effective against tunnels, pose a greater risk to civilians.

Pentagon officials recommended that the Israel Defense Forces send special operations forces to carry out nighttime attacks against specific members of Hamas rather than send tanks in razing operations that destroyed Gaza City and Khan Younis.

“We’re not going to drop 2,000-pound bombs or even 500-pound bombs on civilians,” said Lt. Gen. Mark C. Schwartz, a retired U.S. special operations commander who served as U.S. Israel and Israel security coordinator. the Palestinian Authority said in an email. “We should have developed a plan to address the internal migration of civilians and ensure a safe place to go, rather than forcing them to be internally displaced without any regulations.”

U.S. military officials have also told their Israeli counterparts, via secure calls and in person, to consider surrounding Rafah rather than invading it to cut off supplies, including food and ammunition, to Hamas militants.

In such an operation, Israeli forces would first try to move Palestinian civilians to the north, east or even closer to the Mediterranean, out of danger, a senior government official said in an interview.

The official acknowledged that this would be an extremely difficult operation. On the one hand, an extensive information campaign is needed to guide civilians on where and when to go. Officials said the civilians could be attacked by Hamas as they try to leave, just as the Islamic State attacked civilians trying to flee Mosul during the 2017 battle for its last stronghold in Iraq.

Additionally, senior Hamas leaders are believed to be hiding in fortified tunnels deep within Gaza. Israeli and U.S. officials have said they believe Hamas leaders are using Israeli hostages as human shields in an underground network.

An Israeli official said in an interview that Hamas leaders know that Israel will go to great lengths to avoid harming civilians and are using this to their advantage.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

But U.S. officials say Israel is not doing enough. “A key part of this campaign is to separate the people of Gaza from Hamas,” Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the former leader of U.S. Central Command, said in an interview. “It doesn’t seem to me like they were clearly trying to do that.”

General Votel served as commander of Central Command in the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Particularly in Syria, he said, U.S. and coalition forces are working to return civilians to their homes, restore basic services like water and electricity, and even get people back to work “and participating in their own communities” while working to target remaining Islamic State fighters.

Asked how Israel could do that with a bombing campaign, he said, “Maybe not with a bombing campaign.”

His comments echoed those of senior Pentagon officials, who have said that even if Israel followed U.S. advice, the operation in Rafah would still result in the deaths of hundreds or thousands of civilians.

“Israel does have a lot of focus on Hamas for a lot of reasons that I agree with, and I understand that, but they do it to the detriment of the very people they’re trying to separate from Hamas,” Gen. Votel said. “I don’t know if they take this part of the operation seriously.”

Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., Gen. Votel’s successor at Central Command, said Israeli commanders will ultimately need to make a critical decision: whether to encircle Hamas’s last stronghold and seal it off, leaving the military behind. Unable to escape or receive reinforcements, thousands of Hamas fighters and their leaders prepare for a protracted and bloody battle to the death. Alternatively, Israeli commanders could allow Hamas leaders to escape but, over time, pursue them after Israeli security forces capture the city in a fierce but brief battle.

Gen. McKenzie said that using intelligence gathered from an array of sensors and spies, Israeli commanders could use targeted airstrikes to destroy parts of Hamas’ vast network of tunnels and deploy ground troops to methodically clear out the insurgency block by block. molecular.Special operations forces will target Hamas’ most senior leaders, such as Yahya Sinwarbut these types of missions are dangerous for the hostages.

“They have to get Sinvar,” General McKenzie said. “Israel cannot declare victory without killing or capturing him.”

A U.S. official said the administration began reviewing arms shipments last month, when it became clear Israel was making a decision on Operation Rafah. Biden’s initial position was that Israel should not attack Rafah without an effective plan to reduce civilian casualties, but in recent weeks the White House has increasingly signaled that it believed such a plan was impossible.

At a Senate hearing on Wednesday, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, questioned Austin about the suspension of arms shipments, saying “I’m concerned about the suggestion that U.S. support is conditional.”

Austin insisted that U.S. support for Israel remained “ironclad,” but said the administration firmly believed that “Israel should not launch a major attack on Rafah without considering and protecting civilians on the battlefield.”

As Mr Austin spoke, protesters at the hearing chanted “Free Palestine” and raised their hands painted red.

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