U.S. defense secretary arrives in Israel as pressure mounts to end the war in Gaza

People mourn as they collect the bodies of Palestinians killed in an airstrike on Monday in Khan Yunis, Gaza. The United Kingdom, France and Germany are the latest countries to call on Israel to reach a "sustainable truce" after more than two months of war in Gaza.
People mourn as they collect the bodies of Palestinians killed in an airstrike on Monday in Khan Yunis, Gaza. The United Kingdom, France and Germany are the latest countries to call on Israel to reach a "sustainable truce" after more than two months of war in Gaza.
Ahmad Hasaballah via Getty Images

Pressure was mounting on Israel Monday to begin bringing the war in Gaza to a close, with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expected to relay Biden administration concerns over the heavy death toll for Palestinian civilians. The United Nations Security Council was also gearing up for yet another vote this week on a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire.

In Israel over the weekend, families and supporters of hostages seized by Hamas militants during an Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel renewed calls for a truce to facilitate their release after Israeli forces mistakenly shot and killed three escaped captives during combat operations in northern Gaza on Friday.

In the Oct. 7 attack, Hamas killed about 1,200 people and seized some 240 hostages, Israel says. During a week-long cease-fire at the end of November, about 100 hostages were set free in exchange for some 300 Palestinians held in Israeli jails. Since Israel launched an air-and-ground offensive in response to the Hamas attack, more than 18,000 people — mostly women and children — have been killed in the fighting, according to the Gaza health ministry.

The U.S. defense secretary arrived in Tel Aviv Monday morning. In a post on X (formerly Twitter), Austin said he planned meet with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Israel's war cabinet "to reiterate America's ironclad commitment to Israel," to discuss Israeli military operations to "dismantle Hamas" and to "underscore the need to protect civilians from harm & enable the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza."

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In an earlier post, Austin said he also plans to travel to Bahrain and Qatar "to underscore U.S. commitments to strengthening regional security and stability, and working with partners and allies to advance defense capabilities."

The Biden administration has remained firmly behind Israel in its stated goal to "crush Hamas," but in recent weeks officials have expressed growing concern about the number of civilian casualties in Gaza and the humanitarian crisis unfolding there. President Biden has urged Israel to "be focused on how to save civilian lives." Austin, in a speech earlier this month, warned Israel that it risked "strategic defeat" if it didn't minimize Palestinian casualties.

At the Vatican, meanwhile, Pope Francis has also sought to draw the world's attention to unarmed civilians being killed in Gaza. In written remarks that followed news of an Israeli sniper killing two Palestinian Christian women sheltering at Holy Family Parish in northern Gaza, Francis said there are no terrorists at the church but rather children, nuns, families and people who are sick or have disabilities.

Holy Family Parish, which also came under rocket attack, is one of just two churches in Gaza, both of which are sheltering internally displaced people. Israel's military has not responded to repeated requests for comment on the shootings.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council was expected to vote as early as Monday on a renewed proposal for a cease-fire to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid. The U.S. has already used its Security Council veto once before to block a resolution calling for a humanitarian pause.

On Saturday, Netanyahu, appearing with Gallant and Minister Benny Gantz, reiterated the need to continue the war in the face of international criticism.

"Citizens of Israel. We are fighting a war for our existence, in which we are committed to fight until victory, despite international pressure, and the unbearable heavy prices that the war is exacting from us in our precious sons and daughters," Netanyahu said, mourning the deaths of the three hostages, all men in their 20s.

In Gaza, people had been without cell phone or internet service since Thursday before it was partly restored over the weekend.

Hussein Hamouda, who like many Palestinians in Gaza has been forced to move south to avoid Israeli bombs, says he's seen several communications blackouts in the last 10 weeks, but none as bad as the latest one.

"We can't communicate with our friends, loved ones, relatives, and the outside world," Hamouda says. "Before, it used to last a day, but this time it lasted two, two and a half days. We felt like we were outside the world's scope, cut off."

The U.N. World Food Program, warned Monday that "Gazans are becoming more desperate by the day, with nowhere to go and nothing to eat."

"Our senior leaders saw this firsthand when they went to Gaza. Families are going days without food. To prevent further suffering, the fighting needs to stop," WFP said.

In a news briefing Sunday evening, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), was asked about the accidental killing of the three Israeli captives. He called the incident "very difficult and painful" and acknowledged that it "very easily" could have been avoided.

He said the escaped captives "took into account that they were taking a risk by coming to the IDF force" and that to minimize that risk, they "took off their shirts so that no one would think they had a charge on them and held a white cloth on a pole to identify themselves."

Halevi also admitted that the captives had called for help in Hebrew.

On Monday, Israel's military said it was continuing combat operations to eradicate Hamas in Gaza. During a raid at the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, the military says it located the equivalent of $1.37 million in funds inside a senior Hamas leader's house. "The funds were found in suitcases alongside numerous weapons," the IDF said. It said the money was designated for "terrorist activity."

The Israeli military also said its troops had struck Hamas infrastructure where explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades, a cache of mortars and ammunition were found.

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