Protecting Palestinians a moral imperative, Pentagon chief tells Israeli counterpart

By Thomson Reuters Mar 26, 2024 | 12:00 PM

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Tuesday it was a moral and strategic imperative to protect Palestinian civilians in the war between Israel and Hamas and that the humanitarian catastrophe in besieged Gaza was getting worse.

Austin was speaking at the start of a meeting with Israel Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at the Pentagon as relations between U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sank to a wartime low.

“In Gaza today, the number of civilian casualties is far too high and the amount of humanitarian aid is far too low,” Austin said.

“Gaza is suffering a humanitarian catastrophe and the situation is getting even worse,” Austin said, using more forceful language than he has in the past on the crisis.

He added that he and Gallant would discuss how to ease the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Their meeting takes place after Netanyahu on Monday canceled a separate visit to Washington by two of his most senior aides who were due to hear U.S. ideas about operational alternatives.

Netanyahu’s fraught relations with Biden broke down over Washington’s decision not to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution seeking an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. The United States has been working to get Netanyahu to consider alternatives to a ground invasion of Rafah, the last relatively safe haven for Palestinian civilians.

Austin said he would discuss alternate approaches to targeting Hamas militants in Rafah.

The threat of such an offensive has increased differences s between close allies the United States and Israel, and raised questions about whether the U.S. might restrict military aid if Netanyahu defies Biden and presses ahead anyway.

Austin said that the security bond between Israel and the United States was “unshakeable”.

“The United States is Israel’s closest friend and that won’t change,” he added.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali, Editing by William Maclean and Angus MacSwan)