Israel is expanding military operations into southern Gaza, putting at risk hundreds of thousands of Palestinians escaping the north as US officials grow increasingly uneasy about the war’s toll on civilians.
Southern Gaza was hit by airstrikes overnight, when the Israeli military struck around 200 targets, including weapons depots used by militant group Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the US and European Union. The attacks came hours after the Israeli army urged those who fled south to evacuate again.
The casualties in Gaza — standing at around 15,500 according to the Hamas-run health ministry — has spurred increasingly vocal and public warnings from top American officials that Israel should do more to keep Palestinians safe.
Over the weekend, American officials from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Vice President Kamala Harris said the civilian cost of the war was getting too high.
“The lesson is not that you can win in urban warfare by protecting civilians,” Austin said in a speech in California on Saturday. “The lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians.”
He elaborated further: “In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
Harris weighed in also to say that “as Israel pursues its military objectives in Gaza, we believe Israel must do more to protect innocent civilians.”
A week-long truce brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the US collapsed on Friday, and the resumption of fighting between Israel and Hamas raises fears of how deadly the ground offensive will be and the danger that the conflict will spread across the Middle East and destabilize the region.
A continuation of the war in Gaza risks escalation elsewhere. A US Navy ship responded to a flurry of drone and missile attacks against commercial ships operating in the Red Sea, blaming Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen.
“These attacks represent a direct threat to international commerce and maritime security,” CENTCOM said in a statement. “We also have every reason to believe that these attacks, while launched by the Houthis in Yemen, are fully enabled by Iran.”
Privately, Israeli and American officials said they see eye-to-eye on Israeli army’s main objective to dismantle Hamas. The operation “will be as thorough in the south as it has been in the north of Gaza,” Israeli army chief of staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi said. “It will be as fierce, with no lesser results,” Halevi said.
Other American and Israeli officials said the US isn’t against the operation in southern Gaza, but that it is asking for creation of safe zones to limit casualties. Those officials asked not to be identified, citing the sensitivity of the matter.
John Kirby, spokesman for the US National Security Council, also lauded Israel for being mindful of non-combatants’ lives.
Israel has given civilians in Gaza an online map with “a list of areas where they can go to be more safe,” Kirby said Sunday on NBC. “There’s not too many modern militaries in advance of conducting operations that would actually do that.”
“The US has been absolutely clear and unwavering in its support,” said Eylon Levy, a spokesman for the Israeli government. ”We are very close to totally destroying two Hamas brigades in northern Gaza and the fighting is going to continue in the south,” he said at a press briefing on Monday.
Many nations have warned Israel not to use the overwhelming force in the south as it did in the north, where it levelled much of Gaza City.
“We are trying to be as surgical as we can be in a very difficult combat situation,” Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Netanyahu, told the BBC on Sunday. He added that casualty estimates from Gaza health authorities “need to be taken with a grain of salt.”
Yet expanding combat in the south is more difficult now because of the displacement of some 1.8 million people, many of whom fled there to avoid the earlier fighting in the north, according to figures by the United Nations.
Much of the displacement in Gaza took place after the Israeli army began its ground assault roughly a week after Hamas stormed Israeli towns, kibbutzim, army bases and a music festival on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people, most of whom were civilians. Israel has lost 401 soldiers and 50 police officers during the ensuing fighting, according to the Israeli government.
The only meaningful pause in the war came on Dec. 1, when Israel and Hamas agreed to a short-term truce that ended up being extended to 7 days, expiring last Friday.
Skirmishes also continued with Hezbollah, another Iran-backed armed group in Lebanon to Israel’s north.
Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli army spokesman, said early Monday that Israel is confronting “quite escalatory actions by Hezbollah” on the country’s northern border with Lebanon.
Source: Al Arabiya