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US defence secretary says Gaza death toll ‘far too high’ in public rebuke of Israel

US defense secretary Lloyd Austin said the civilian death toll in Gaza is “far too high” ahead of a meeting with his Israeli counterpart on Tuesday.

Speaking at the Pentagon just prior to a sit-down with Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant, Mr Austin also made an urgent call for Israel to increase the amount of aid it is allowing into Gaza to prevent a famine.

“In Gaza today, the number of civilian casualties is far too high and the amount of humanitarian aid is far too low,” he said. He added that Gaza is currently “suffering a humanitarian catastrophe” and called for "immediate increases in assistance to avert famine.”

The comments represent a rare public rebuke by the US nearly six months into the war in Gaza, and come at a time of increased tensions between the two historic allies over Israel’s conduct in its devastating offensive, which has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians, according to the Palestinian health ministry — most of them women and children.

A senior American defence official told reporters after the meeting that Mr Austin provided his Israeli counterpart with what was described as an alternative to a full-scale invasion of Rafah featuring precise targeting of senior Hamas leaders while securing Egypt’s land border with Gaza and providing for the entrance of humanitarian assistance and the exit of civilians as needed.

The official described the talks as “very good,” “productive,” and “quite meaty” and said Mr Austin “expressed the view that Hamas’ remaining battalions in Rafah must be dismantled”.

“That’s a legitimate goal that we share,” the official added.

An Israeli defence ministry readout of the meeting also stated that Mr Gallant and Mr Austin discussed “the progress of the fighting to defeat Hamas, the efforts to return the hostages and the strengthening of the security-strategic cooperation with an emphasis on the procurement processes to preserve Israel’s qualitative edge in the region”.

The meeting between the American defence secretary and the Israeli defence minister came one day after the US withheld its veto at the United Nations Security Council for the first time since the war began and allowed the body to pass a resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire in the war — something the Biden administration had blocked three times before in support of Israel’s desire to continue its offensive into southern Gaza.

Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled the planned visit of a high-level delegation to Washington DC in protest, and accused the US of “retreating” from what he said had been a “principled position”.

The Israeli war in Gaza was launched in response to a surprise attack by Hamas that killed 1,200 Israelis. More than 200 were taken hostage by the group in the attack.

Tensions between the US and Israel have been rising in recent weeks over a litany of issues, among them Israel’s blocking of life-saving aid into Gaza, the high civilian death toll caused by the war, and its stated intention to launch a ground operation in the city of Rafah, where more than one million Palestinians are sheltering after having been displaced from elsewhere in the besieged territory.

The high-level delegation cancelled by Mr Netanyahu was called for Israeli and US officials to discuss alternative plans for a full-on ground assault in Rafah, which the US had cautioned would cause too many civilian casualties.

Mr Netanyahu said Israel would press on until it had achieved its objectives despite the UN vote.

“Israel will not surrender to Hamas’ delusional demands and will continue to act to achieve all the goals of the war: releasing all the hostages, destroying Hamas’ military and governing capabilities and ensuring that Gaza will never again be a threat to Israel,” he said in a statement on Tuesday.