U.S. Military’s Plea to Israel: Do More to Protect Gazans in War Zone

For months, the Biden administration has pleaded with Israel to do more to protect Palestinian civilians, who have borne the brunt of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign in Gaza to destroy Hamas.

But now, on the eve of Israel’s long-threatened major assault on the city of Rafah, the gulf between what the United States is recommending and what Israel appears intent on doing could not be wider.

The Biden administration’s list of suggestions is lengthy. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said this week that the United States wanted Israel to carry out “more precise” operations, and that the 2,000-pound bombs it has been using in densely populated Gaza “could create a lot of collateral damage.”

American officials also want Israel to lean more toward sending special operations troops in to conduct targeted raids of Hamas leaders and fighters, instead of relying on aerial bombing campaigns and tanks.

But the advice all comes down to this: The United States wants Israel to move Palestinian civilians out of the way, and to do more to help humanitarian aid get in, before launching any incursion into Rafah. In fact, if it were up to the Biden administration, Israel would not go into Rafah at all.

“We certainly would like to see no major combat take place in Rafah,” Mr. Austin said at a Senate subcommittee hearing on Wednesday. He then linked Israel’s actions in Rafah to future American weapons aid.

At a critical juncture in the Israel-Hamas war, senior American officials have paused a shipment of bombs and threatened to withhold more arms deliveries if Israel goes ahead with its plans for Rafah.

The Biden administration has also said Israel must do more to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza, where more than 34,000 people have died and more than 77,000 have been wounded, according to health authorities in the territory. In addition, aid groups say that 1.1 million Gazans are experiencing catastrophic hunger.

Both Mr. Austin and Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as other senior American military officials, have pointed to past American efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan as examples of what they think Israeli forces should and should not do. Of course, civilians died in those operations, but not at the rate that Palestinians have been killed in Gaza.

But in recent days, and to the dismay of Biden administration officials, Israel has pressed ahead with its campaign, ordered 110,000 civilians to leave Rafah, conducted airstrikes against targets on the edge of the city, and sent in tanks and seized the border crossing with Egypt.

General Brown delivered the administration’s message again on Wednesday during a call with the Israeli military’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi. The two men did not discuss the pause in weapons shipments, General Brown said in a brief interview in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday.

The Israeli military, he said, still has not provided the Pentagon with a full and detailed plan for the Rafah operation. His advice to his Israeli counterpart, he said, was to “make sure they’re paying attention to civilians.”

Lt. Col. Nadav Shoshani, an Israeli military spokesman, said on Thursday that Israeli forces had been urging civilians to move out of the way. Before deploying tanks to the Rafah crossing this week, Israel sent fliers and text messages, and made Arabic media broadcasts telling people to evacuate the area, he said.

“As we have said since Day 1: Our war is against Hamas, not the people of Gaza,” he added.

Israel has been using large munitions such as 2,000-pound bombs to collapse tunnels and constrict the ability of Hamas leaders and fighters to move around in their subterranean network — as opposed to 250-pound small-diameter bombs, which American officials often highlight. Big bombs, while more effective against the tunnels, pose a greater risk to civilians.

Instead of sending in tanks and conducting razing operations, which have destroyed Gaza City and Khan Younis, Pentagon officials have advised the Israel Defense Forces to send in special operations troops for nighttime raids that target specific members of Hamas.

“We would not have been dropping 2,000-pound and even 500-pound bombs in and amongst the civilian population,” Lt. Gen. Mark C. Schwartz, a retired U.S. Special Operations commander who served as the American security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, said in an email. “We would have developed a plan to address the internal migration of the civilian populace, ensuring that there was a safe place to go, and not just forcing internal displacement without any provision.”

U.S. military officials have also told their Israeli counterparts, in secure calls and in person, to consider surrounding Rafah — instead of invading it — to cut Hamas militants off from supplies, including food and ammunition.

In such an operation, Israeli forces would first try to move Palestinian civilians out of harm’s way, to the north, to the east or even closer to the Mediterranean Sea, a senior administration official said in an interview.

That would be an extremely difficult operation, the official acknowledged. For one thing, it would require an extensive messaging campaign to direct civilians where to go, and when. Those civilians could be attacked by Hamas as they tried to leave, officials said, much as the Islamic State attacked civilians trying to flee Mosul in the 2017 battle for the last ISIS stronghold in Iraq.

Furthermore, senior Hamas leaders are believed to be hiding in fortified tunnels deep underneath Gaza. Israeli and American officials say they believe Hamas’s leaders are using Israeli hostages as human shields in the underground network.

One Israeli official said in an interview that Hamas leaders knew that Israel would try to avoid harming civilians and was using that to their advantage.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly.

But American officials say Israel is not doing enough. “A key part of the campaign has to be separating the people in Gaza from Hamas,” Gen. Joseph L. Votel, a former leader of the U.S. military’s Central Command, said in an interview. “It’s not apparent to me that they are trying to do that.”

General Votel was the head of Central Command during the campaign against the Islamic State out of Iraq and Syria. In Syria in particular, he said, American and coalition forces worked to get civilians back into their homes, to restore basic services like water and electricity, and even to get people working again “and engaged in their own communities,” all while trying to target remaining Islamic State militants in raids.

Asked how Israel could do that in the middle of a bombing campaign, he said, “Perhaps not do a bombing campaign.”

His comments echoed those of senior Pentagon officials, who consistently say that even if Israel follows the U.S. recommendations, an operation in Rafah would still lead to hundreds, or thousands, of civilian deaths.

“Israel, for a lot of reasons for which I agree with, has really focused on Hamas, and I get that, but they’ve done that to the detriment of the people that they are trying to separate from Hamas,” General Votel said. “And it’s not clear to me that they value that part of the operation.”

General Votel’s successor at Central Command, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., said Israeli commanders would eventually need to make a critical decision: whether to encircle the final Hamas stronghold, seal it off so thousands of Hamas fighters and their leaders could not escape or be reinforced, and prepare to fight a prolonged bloody battle to the death. Or Israeli commanders could allow Hamas leaders to flee but then hunt them down, over time, after Israeli security forces seized the city in a fierce but shorter fight.

Using intelligence gleaned from an array of sensors and spies, Israeli commanders could use targeted airstrikes to collapse portions of Hamas’s vast tunnel network and deploy ground forces to methodically clear insurgents block by block, General McKenzie said. Special operations forces would target the most senior Hamas leaders, such as Yahya Sinwar, but these types of missions would be dangerous for the hostages.

“They’ve got to get Sinwar,” General McKenzie said. “The Israelis can’t declare victory without killing or capturing him.”

A U.S. official said the administration began reviewing arms shipments last month when it became clear that Israel seemed to be reaching a decision on a Rafah operation. Mr. Biden initially took the position that Israel should not attack Rafah without a plan to effectively minimize civilian casualties, but in recent weeks the White House has increasingly indicated that it did not believe such a plan was possible.

During the Senate hearing on Wednesday, Senator Jerry Moran, Republican of Kansas, questioned Mr. Austin about the weapons shipment pause, saying that “I worry about the suggestion that support by the United States is conditional.”

Mr. Austin insisted that American support to Israel remained “ironclad” but said the administration firmly believed that “Israel shouldn’t launch a major attack into Rafah without accounting for and protecting the civilians that are in that battle space.”

As Mr. Austin spoke, protesters in the hearing shouted “free Palestine” and held up their hands, which were painted red.

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