Israeli leaders are considering the next phase of the war in Gaza, the country’s defense minister said on Monday, amid mounting pressure from the United States to shift to away from the high-intensity, large-scale warfare that Israeli forces have been waging for most of the last two months.
The acknowledgment, made at a news conference by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, came as the Biden administration again pushed Israel to better protect civilians in Gaza — what Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, standing next to Mr. Gallant, called a “strategic imperative” for Israel’s campaign.
Mr. Gallant did not offer details about Israel’s plans to shift the strategy of its campaign, which has so far been dominated by intense bombardments and a ground invasion that swept into the northern half of the Gaza Strip and expanded to a broad swath of the south.
“Soon, we will be able to distinguish between different areas in Gaza,” he said. “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.”
That could “be achieved maybe sooner in the north than in the south,” he said — but warned that he was only trying to convey “an idea of what we are discussing.”
He added that Israel had “no clock” running on the end of its campaign.
Mr. Austin, making his second visit to Israel since the deadly Hamas-led Oct. 7 attacks, met with Mr. Gallant, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials to discuss in detail how Israeli forces could transition to a more precise phase of the war.
Asked about the timeline of Israel’s campaign — a subject of discussions among U.S. officials in recent days — Mr. Austin said, “this is Israel’s operation, and I’m not here to dictate timelines or terms.” He added that U.S. support for Israel’s right to defend itself was “ironclad” and “not going to change.”
The Biden administration envisions that the next phase would involve smaller groups of elite forces that would move in and out of population centers in Gaza, conducting more precise, intelligence-driven missions to find and kill Hamas leaders, rescue hostages and destroy tunnels.
Speaking to reporters after daylong meetings in Tel Aviv, Mr. Austin called U.S. support for Israel “unshakable,” and endorsed Israel’s campaign to destroy Hamas’s ability to wage military operations. But he also repeated a message he has often made of late: Israel would be left less secure if its combat operations turn more Palestinians in support of Hamas.
“Israel has every right to defend itself,” he said, standing alongside Mr. Gallant. “As I’ve said, protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza is both a moral duty and a strategic imperative.”
Mr. Austin’s comments came a day after Mr. Netanyahu vowed to “fight to the end” in Gaza even as public outcry over the Israeli military’s accidental killings of three hostages raised new questions about how it is conducting the war.
Gazan health authorities say nearly 20,000 people have been killed in the enclave during Israel’s response to the attacks of Oct. 7, when the Hamas-led raids into Israel killed an estimated 1,200 people.
The Israeli military has said Hamas is responsible for civilian casualties because it uses the general population as human shields by operating in or around hospitals, homes and other civilian infrastructure.
Israel’s air force said on Monday that its targeting practices were in accordance with international law. A legal adviser said during a briefing that the air force’s legal department was involved in the targeting process, but that it was not necessary for military lawyers to clear every strike. The adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in accordance with Israeli military procedure, said commanders were sufficiently versed in the laws of war and the principles of proportionality, under which they must take into account potential harm to civilians.
Differences have been growing between the U.S. and Israel over civilian casualties, the length of the war, declining global support for Israel’s campaign and who would govern of Gaza after the fighting ends.
The Biden administration has communicated its concerns through top officials’ extended contacts with their Israeli counterparts, including repeated trips to the Middle East.
Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, met with Israeli leaders last Thursday to discuss the direction of the conflict. The top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Gen. Michael E. Kurilla, met with senior Israeli officers last Friday, the Pentagon’s Central Command said. And Mr. Austin was joined in his meetings on Monday by Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
While U.S. officials have not publicly discussed a timetable, privately they say that Mr. Biden wants Israel to switch to more precise tactics in about three weeks.
Mr. Austin will continue his travels through the Middle East this week. He is expected to visit Bahrain and later Qatar, where the Pentagon operates a major command center at Al Udeid air base. The Qatari government has helped facilitate the release of hostages seized by Hamas in the Oct. 7 attacks.
Rachel Abrams, Johnatan Reiss and Adam Sella contributed reporting.