Austin presses Israel on civilian deaths as more hospitals are attacked


JERUSALEM — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Israel on Monday seeking to persuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to wind down the bloodiest phase of its war in the Gaza Strip, with the death toll approaching 20,000 and new talks underway on a possible deal to free more hostages held by Hamas.

American weaponry and public support have played a key role in Israel’s fight against militants, but concern is mounting in Washington and other Western capitals over its military tactics and the fast-deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza, where about 2.2 million Palestinian civilians and more than 100 Israeli hostages are trapped in the conflict zone.

In carefully balanced remarks from the lectern in Tel Aviv, Austin told reporters that U.S. support for Israel was “unshakable” and that bringing hostages home was a priority for the Biden administration — but that protecting civilians throughout was a “moral duty and a strategic imperative.”

Unguided ‘dumb bombs’ used in almost half of Israeli strikes on Gaza

A U.S. intelligence assessment, made public last week, revealed that almost half of the air-to-ground munitions used by Israel in Gaza have been unguided bombs, a ratio that arms experts and human rights monitors said was probably contributing to the civilian death toll.

“We know that the past 72 days have been some of the most painful days in Israel’s history. But it would compound this tragedy if all that was waiting for the Israeli people and your Palestinian neighbors at the end of this awful war was more insecurity, fury and despair,” Austin said.

The defense secretary’s appearance in Israel, his second since the conflict began, was one of a string of high-profile visits by U.S. officials in recent days to press the same message with Israeli counterparts. He met with Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and other top officials to discuss how Israeli forces will transition to the next phase of the war.

“I’m not here to dictate timelines or terms,” Austin told reporters. “Our support to Israel’s right to defend itself is ironclad.”

War broke out after several thousand Hamas fighters entered Israeli border communities on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people in a brutal rampage. At least 240 people were taken back to Gaza as hostages, hidden underground and in apartment buildings across the war-battered enclave.

The news Saturday that three of them had been mistakenly killed in northern Gaza by Israeli forces while shirtless and carrying white flags caused a surge of anger across Israel, and added pressure on its wartime government to negotiate a new hostage release deal.

After releases, an invisible divide separates Israel’s hostage families

CIA Director William J. Burns, who has emerged as the main U.S. negotiator in the hostage crisis, held a meeting with the chief of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency and Qatar’s prime minister in Warsaw on Monday in his latest effort to broker an agreement, according to two people familiar with the matter.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the secret meeting, said the men also met twice last month.

Burns has pushed in previous meetings for Hamas and Israel to broaden the focus of their ongoing negotiations over captives — currently limited to women and children — to encompass the release of men and military personnel. Some of the remaining American hostages include men who were serving in the Israel Defense Forces near Gaza on Oct. 7.

“I can’t report a date … or tell you in good faith that another deal is imminent,” the National Security Council’s John Kirby told reporters Monday. “All I can do is assure you we continue to work this very, very hard.”

The Gaza Health Ministry said Monday that the war has killed at least 19,453 people, with more than 52,000 wounded. The network of hospitals to care for them is also under attack. At least 18 hospitals have been damaged in bombings, according to Insecurity Insight, a group that researches the impact of armed conflict on civilians.

A month after Israeli forces besieged and then stormed Gaza’s largest hospital, other facilities have experienced a similar fate.

World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Sunday that he was “appalled by the effective destruction” of the Kamal Adwan Hospital in northern Gaza, which he said had led to the deaths of at least eight patients and had rendered the facility nonfunctional.

Israeli forces withdrew Saturday after targeting the hospital for more than a week.

“We learned that many patients had to self-evacuate at great risk to their health and safety, with ambulances unable to reach the facility,” he said in a statement on X, formerly Twitter. “Of the deceased patients, several died due to lack of adequate health care, including a 9-year-old child.”

Gaza, smashed by Israeli strikes, sees new threat: Disease

Munir al-Bursh, director general of the Gaza Health Ministry, told The Washington Post on Sunday that Israeli forces shot at him and a group of doctors while they were holding a news conference in front of the hospital. Bursh also said Israeli forces arrested 70 medical professionals, among them the hospital’s director, Ahmed al-Kahlot.

The Post could not independently verify the claims. The IDF did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The IDF accused Hamas of hiding weapons at the facility and said it detained 90 “Hamas terrorists that were interrogated by security forces.” Hussam Abu Safiya, a pediatric doctor, and Mohamed al-Madhoun, a civilian who was sheltering in the hospital, told The Post that there were no Hamas fighters or weapons there.

The IDF released an unverified photo of four shirtless men carrying guns above their heads and identified the men as Hamas fighters, which Abu Safiya denied. The Post could not independently verify the competing claims.

On Sunday, Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra accused the IDF of storming al-Awda Hospital in northern Gaza after besieging it for several days. Qudra said that medical staff were made to strip and that soldiers detained an unknown number of them, including hospital director Ahmed Muhanna.

“We fear that the occupation forces will repeat the scenario of what happened at Kamal Adwan Hospital,” Qudra said in a statement.

After 16 years under Israeli and Egyptian blockade, most people in Gaza were dependent on humanitarian aid before the conflict began. The Biden administration has pressured Netanyahu’s government to agree to allow aid deliveries into the territory, but relief groups warn that the now-daily flow of trucks into Gaza still amounts to a drop in an ocean of need.

With only 10 percent of necessary food supplies entering Gaza since the beginning of the conflict, the World Food Program on Saturday warned of the “immediate possibility” of starvation, highlighting that supplies of food and water were nearly nonexistent in some locations.

In a report Monday, Human Rights Watch accused Israeli officials of pursuing a policy of starvation, by blocking the delivery of water, food and fuel, while impeding humanitarian assistance and razing agricultural areas.

Tal Heinrich, a spokesperson for the Israeli prime minister’s office, described the claims as “ridiculous,” pointing out that 201 truckloads of humanitarian relief had entered Gaza since Sunday, including through the Kerem Shalom crossing — opened by Israel over the weekend after U.S. pressure.

As the war increasingly spills beyond Gaza’s borders, the Biden administration is also taking steps to counter a wave of attacks on ships in the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden off Yemen.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels have conducted about a dozen missile and drone attacks on vessels transiting the area since last month, according to the Pentagon. At least one ship was hijacked.

Hoping to safeguard global commerce and stanch the spread of regional violence, Austin on Monday announced the establishment of a multinational task force focused on securing the Red Sea, including Britain, France and Bahrain, among others.

“The recent escalation in reckless Houthi attacks originating from Yemen threatens the free flow of commerce, endangers innocent mariners, and violates international law,” Austin said in a statement. “This is an international challenge that demands collective action.”

Loveluck reported from London. John Hudson and Missy Ryan in Washington, Meg Kelly in London and Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report.





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