ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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Gallant: Israel won't control Gaza 'in any civilian way'

Visiting Israel, US defense chief says he won’t ‘dictate timelines or terms’ of war

Austin pushes for more Gaza aid, two-state vision; says he’ll convene regional ministers to counter Houthis; Gallant: There’s ‘no clock running,’ war will see ‘end of Hamas’

In this government handout photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pictures of hostages taken by Hamas in the Gaza-ruling terror group's October 7 onslaught, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on December 18, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/ GPO)
In this government handout photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pictures of hostages taken by Hamas in the Gaza-ruling terror group's October 7 onslaught, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on December 18, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/ GPO)

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Tel Aviv on Monday, meeting with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. He reiterated US backing for Israel’s war against Hamas, while calling to increase humanitarian aid entering the Strip, though he declined to set any timeline on the ongoing Israeli operation.

In public comments, Austin stopped short of making any suggestions about wrapping up the war, and offered little criticism of the Gaza death toll, saying the US will continue to support Israel’s war on Hamas and send it munitions and other defense aid. But he used a press conference to push for movement toward a two-state solution — something the current Israeli government has rejected — and also issued a warning to Israel about growing violence in the West Bank.

During their meeting in Tel Aviv, Austin told Netanyahu that the US “commitment to Israel is unshakeable,” noting that it was his fourth visit to the country as secretary of defense and second since October 7. “America’s commitment to Israel is unwavering and no individual group or state should test our resolve.”

The defense chief, who was accompanied by new US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Charles Q. Brown, said that when it comes to the threat of attacks on ships in the Red Sea by Yemen’s Houthis, the US is “leading a multinational maritime task force to uphold the bedrock principle of freedom of navigation. Iran’s support for Houthi attacks on commercial vessels must stop.”

And in a later press conference alongside Gallant, Austin said the Houthi attacks are “reckless, dangerous, and they violate international law,” and said he would be hosting a virtual meeting on Monday with ministers “to address this threat… in a meaningful way.” He also called on Hezbollah in Lebanon “to make sure that they don’t do things that would provoke a wider conflict.”

Austin vowed to continue to provide Israel “with the equipment that you need to defend your country,” citing munitions, tactical vehicles, and air defense systems, in comments to Netanyahu. He said the US was working to free all of the hostages, including US citizens still being held, as well as to “best support Israel on a path to lasting security — and that means tackling urgent needs first.”

From left: IDF Chief Herzi Halevi, US military chief CQ Brown, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meet in Tel Aviv on December 18, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Austin said that “more humanitarian assistance” must reach Gazan civilians, “and we must distribute that aid better.” He thanked Netanyahu for the “recent initiatives,” a likely reference to Israel agreeing to reopen the Kerem Shalom Crossing into Gaza for aid deliveries, “and hopefully that will enable us to to move even more in.”

Behind closed doors, the US defense chief was expected to have pressed Israeli officials to look toward winding down major combat operations in Gaza, withdrawing most ground troops and moving to more targeted operations aimed at killing Hamas leaders, destroying tunnels and rescuing hostages, as global anger over the rising death toll in Gaza has continued to grow.

But asked at a press conference about any such timeline, Austin said that “this is Israel’s operation, and I’m not here to dictate timelines or terms. Our support [for] Israel’s right to defend itself is ironclad, as you’ve heard me say a number of times, and that’s not going to change.”

In a readout issued later Monday, his office said he had “urged planning for transitioning to the next phase of operations.”

Answering a question at their joint press conference, Gallant said that there is “no clock that is running” on the achievements of the war, and “we need to get to different performances on the ground before we move to the next phase.”

Ultimately, said Gallant, “We will dismantle Hamas, otherwise we will not be able to exist and live in the way we want to live in this region… They need to know [in the wake of October 7] that if they kill or kidnap 1,500 people including kids and women, this is the end of Hamas.”

US Secretary of State Lloyd Austin (left) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meet in Tel Aviv on December 18, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Gallant said the IDF “will continue to operate on different levels of intensity according to the situation in the region,” adding that soon Israel “will be able to distinguish between different areas in Gaza,” and once it has designated certain areas as cleared of Hamas, it can work to “transition gradually to the next phase and start working on bringing back the local population.”

Asked about civilian casualties of Israel’s military operation, Austin said that Gaza is a complex battle space, with a dense population, and “that makes it very, very difficult to conduct any military operation.” Also, he noted, Hamas routinely uses civilians as shields, and fights from “near hospitals, mosques, churches, you name it. That adds to the complexity.”

Austin said he discussed with Gallant “techniques that they [the IDF] are changing as they conduct operations in the south. All of us learn,” he added, suggesting that “taking lessons learned in the north they’ve applied some of those lessons in the south, and I’m sure that’ll continue.”

Austin also reiterated the White House’s belief that the end of the war must include working toward a larger solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “It would compound this tragedy” if the end of the war was met with only “insecurity, fear and despair,” he said.

“Israelis and Palestinians have both paid too big a price to just go back to October 6.” Therefore, he said, he discussed during his meetings “pathways toward a future for Gaza after Hamas, based upon the clear principles laid down last month by my friend, Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken.”

Those principles were: No use of Gaza as a platform of terror against Israel; no displacement of Palestinians in Gaza; no reoccupation of Gaza by Israel; no blockade or siege of Gaza; no reduction of Gaza’s territory; and post-war governance in Gaza that reunites the territory with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority.

An IDF infantry column marches through a partially demolished road in the Gaza Strip, in a handout photo released December 18, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Austin said that “Israelis and Palestinians both deserve a horizon of hope,” and that it is “in the interest of both Israelis and Palestinians to move forward towards two states, living side by side and in mutual security.” The defense chief noted “how hard that is” for Israelis to accept, “especially after October 7. But ongoing instability and insecurity only play into the hands of Hamas.”

He also said he had discussed with Israeli leaders “urgent action” they should take to stabilize the West Bank, again calling out attacks by extremist settlers against Palestinians, which “must stop and those committing the violence must be held accountable.”

Gallant told reporters that after the war, “Israel will not control Gaza in any civilian way. We will conduct any needed operational and military effort in order to secure our future. And we are building the routes for non-hostile partners on the other side.”

The defense minister told his US counterpart that “our common enemies around the world are watching and they know that [an] Israeli victory is a victory of the free world led by the United States.” He added that the IDF is “fighting against a brutal enemy that hides behind civilians,” and vows that Israel will continue operating in Gaza “until we fully achieve our goals.”

Israeli military vehicles operate inside the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, December 17, 2023. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

Turning to Austin, Gallant said: “We both know the complexities of war. We both fought brutal terror organizations, we know that it takes time,” stressing that Israel is operating “according to international law” and working to minimize harm to Palestinian civilians.

“We are also working with international partners to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid, but anytime we discuss humanitarian issues, we must remember 129 hostages are held in Gaza,” Gallant said. “This is the [top] humanitarian issue.”

Where Lebanon is concerned, said Gallant, “diplomacy is the preferred way” and Israel is not looking for war. “But Hezbollah is shooting [at] us every day since October 8… We hope Hezbollah will understand that it’s time to stop.”

During their meeting earlier Monday, Netanyahu thanked Austin for visiting and said he had told the US defense chief that Israel is committed to “achieve total victory against Hamas.” He said the ongoing war was “a battle against the Iranian axis of terror, which is now threatening to close the [Red Sea] maritime strait of Bab el-Mandeb” through Houthi attacks. “This threatens the freedom of navigation of the entire world.”

Gallant’s office released a photo of the defense minister showing his counterpart a chart hung on a wall showing senior Hamas members, and which ones the IDF has taken out in Gaza. The Prime Minister’s Office released a photo of Netanyahu showing Austin photos of the hostages still held captive by Hamas in the Strip.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) shows his US counterpart Lloyd Austin a chart showing the ‘status of the assassination of officials’ in Hamas, in Tel Aviv on December 18, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Israel launched its war on Hamas following the terror group’s murderous onslaught on southern Israel on October 7, in which it slaughtered some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took another approximately 240 people hostage, more than 100 of whom it is still holding captive.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 19,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the ensuing operation. Israel has said at least a third of those are Hamas terror operatives. The Gaza death toll cannot be independently verified, and also includes those killed in failed Palestinian rocket launches. The IDF says it has killed over 7,000 Hamas operatives in Gaza.

The IDF says that 129 of its soldiers have been killed in the Gaza ground operation.

The US has vocally backed Israel since the start of the war, and has spoken out in support of the Jewish state in international bodies, including vetoing a UN Security Council resolution which called for a unilateral ceasefire.

In recent weeks, however, the US has at times taken a more critical tone in light of the rising death toll over 10 weeks of fighting, with US President Joe Biden saying last week that Israel’s “indiscriminate bombing” in the Strip was causing it to lose global support, and that Netanyahu “has to change” his approach.

Netanyahu has admitted that Israeli and US officials do not see eye-to-eye on the vision of a post-Hamas Gaza, but he has repeatedly stated that he will not allow the Palestinian Authority to rule over the Strip following the war, despite the US continuing to call for such a move.

Agencies and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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