Israel will gradually transition to the next phase of operations in Gaza, the country’s defence minister said on Monday following talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin about lower intensity combat and ways to reduce harm to civilians.
Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the local population would likely be able to first return to Gaza’s north, which was the most populated area of the Mediterranean enclave before Israel’s invasion in retaliation for the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.
Neither Austin or Gallant gave a timeline for a move to what Austin called “more surgical” operations.
Most of north Gaza’s residents followed Israel’s instructions to evacuate to the south, where the military tells people to move on regularly amid relentless air strikes and gunfights with fighters from the Islamist group.
“Soon we will be able to distinguish between different areas in Gaza,” Gallant said in a joint news conference in Tel Aviv.
“In every area where we achieve our mission we will be able to transition gradually to the next phase and start working on bringing back the local population,” Gallant said. “That means that it can be achieved maybe sooner in the north rather than in the south.”
International pressure for a ceasefire has increased on Israel over the more than 19,000 civilian casualties resulting from a massive bombing campaign and ground war aimed at destroying Hamas, which governs Gaza and fights guerrilla-style from a network of urban tunnels.
While the United States provides Israel with weapons and diplomatic support and has resisted ceasefire calls, it hardened its tone towards Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government recently. Last week U.S. President Joe Biden said Israel risked losing international support because of what he called “indiscriminate” bombing.
Austin, however, offered reassurance on Monday, saying: “American support for Israel security is unshakable. Israel is not alone.”
A series of U.S. officials have called for Israel to focus its strategy on intelligence-drive attacks on Hamas leadership.
“That doesn’t signal an end to the operation. It sometimes means that you’re being more precise, you’re being more focused on a specific target set,” Austin said.
Israel says the thousands of tonnes of bombs dropped on Gaza since Oct. 7 have been aimed at militarily relevant targets.