US tells Israel to lower intensity of Gaza war ‘in near future’

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US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Washington wants Israel’s military to switch to a less intense phase of war with Hamas “in the near future”, the White House said on Thursday.

The intervention came as senior Israeli officials warned it would take months to defeat Hamas, and set out a vision for Gaza’s postwar future that differed sharply from ideas floated by the US, including Israel having full security control of the enclave and “taking territory” to provide a launch pad for future operations.

Sullivan is in Israel this week to discuss the timing of the country’s military offensive, efforts to get more humanitarian assistance into the Gaza Strip and planning for the aftermath of the war. He also visited Riyadh overnight to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler.

“[Jake] did talk about possible transitioning from what we would call high-intensity operations, which is what we’re seeing them do now, to lower intensity operations some time in the near future,” US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

Kirby’s comments came not long after Sullivan met Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant, who warned that “it will require a long period of time — it will last more than several months” for Israel to defeat Hamas.

The Financial Times reported earlier this week that the US expected Israel to lower the intensity of its military offensive and be more precise in its raids targeting Hamas military commanders from as early as January.

US officials have made clear to their Israeli counterparts that they support their efforts to rout Hamas but want the full-blown fighting that has killed many civilians to end as soon as possible.

“I want them to be focused on how to save civilian lives. Not stop going after Hamas, but be more careful”, US President Joe Biden told journalists on Thursday when asked if he wanted Israel to move to a less intense phase of the war.

One US official speaking later on Thursday described “incredibly frank” discussions with the Israelis about their campaign, including when the military would shift to “more targeted surgical intelligence-driven” efforts against “high-value targets”.

After initially concentrating heavy bombardment and a ground offensive on northern Gaza, Israel is now focused on finding senior Hamas leaders believed to be in Khan Younis, the largest urban centre in the enclave’s south.

Palestinian authorities say Israel’s air and ground operations have killed more than 18,000 people in Gaza since the war began on October 7, when Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel killed about 1,200 people.

Netanyahu recently claimed that the Israel Defense Forces had killed “about half of Hamas’s battalion commanders”. Some US officials have pointed to these statements as an example of how he is looking to the next phase of the war.

Sullivan’s trip to Israel comes as Biden faces mounting domestic criticism — including from members of his own Democratic party — for the his staunch support of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, and calls for the US to rein in the Israeli military. Defence secretary Lloyd Austin is also due for talks in the Middle East this week.

Biden’s own frustration with the Israeli military effort spilled out into the open earlier this week when he said the US ally risked losing global support because of “the indiscriminate bombing that takes place” in Gaza.

Israel and the US are also at odds over who will secure the Gaza Strip in the medium and longer-term. While US officials acknowledge Israeli troops may remain in the enclave initially, they do not want to see Israel reoccupy Gaza.

Netanyahu and his government have, however, pledged to remain in the enclave indefinitely and have said they oppose proposals for the Palestinian Authority, which was pushed out of Gaza by Hamas in 2007, to be given control again.

The US said Sullivan would also visit Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, on Friday to meet Mahmoud Abbas, president of the PA, and discuss security, including US efforts to hold Israeli extremist settlers accountable for violence against Palestinians.

In a primetime address on Thursday, Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s five-man war cabinet, set out his vision for what postwar Gaza should look like, saying it would include full Israeli security control over the enclave, and include Israel “taking territory” that would provide a launch pad for future operations.

Gantz said it would also be necessary to find local actors inside the enclave to run civilian affairs under a framework provided by moderate Arab states, suggesting a resumption of efforts to normalise ties between Israel and countries such as Saudi Arabia — a move also pushed by the US — that could bring help with reconstruction.

“The fate of Khan Younis and Shajaiya [in Gaza] will be the same fate as that of the kasbah [old city] in Nablus,” Gantz said, an allusion to the free hand Israeli security forces have conducting raids into Palestinian cities on the occupied West Bank.

“In this war, there won’t be a ‘day after’. There will be a long process, difficult and necessary, at varying levels of force [over the course of] days, months and years.”


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