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U.S. Outlines Steps to Israel to Reduce Civilian Deaths

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The measures include using smaller bombs against Hamas, U.S. officials said.

U.S. officials said they have privately outlined several steps to Israel to reduce civilian casualties in its military campaign in the Gaza Strip, including using smaller bombs, when going after Hamas leaders and infrastructure.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Friday during a visit to Israel that he had spoken to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about “concrete steps” that the United States believes Israel could and should take to minimize civilian deaths, a message he repeated on Saturday in Jordan after meeting with Arab leaders who demanded an immediate cease-fire.

Mr. Blinken said Israel could put in place the American recommendations “while still achieving its objectives of finding and finishing Hamas terrorists.”

The secretary of state did not specify in his remarks what those “concrete steps” entailed, and his spokesman, Matthew Miller, declined to comment on them.

But U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meetings were private, said there had been a number of conversations in which they had advised their Israeli counterparts to take a more deliberate approach in their operations.

U.S. officials told the Israelis that they could reduce civilian casualties if they improved how they targeted Hamas leaders, gathered more intelligence on Hamas command and control networks before launching strikes, used smaller bombs to collapse the tunnel network and employed their ground forces to separate civilian population centers from where the militants are concentrated.

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Mr. Blinken urged Israel to agree to a series of pauses in the fighting, but Mr. Netanyahu rebuffed the idea, saying any pauses would be contingent on the release of all Israeli hostages.Credit…Pool photo by Jonathan Ernst

The Americans say Israel’s forceful response to the attack by Hamas on Oct. 7, in which more than 1,400 people were killed and more than 240 were taken hostage, reflects the importance that it places on re-establishing deterrence against attacks from adversaries in the region. The Israeli military’s aura of power was shaken by the Oct. 7 attack, the officials say.

The unfolding humanitarian crisis in Hamas-controlled Gaza, where the health ministry says more than 9,400 people have been killed, has provoked outrage in the region, in the United States and around the world, leading the Biden administration to be more vocal in saying that Israel has to do more to protect civilians.

Mr. Blinken urged Israel to agree to a series of pauses in the fighting to facilitate the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza and the exit of foreign nationals from the enclave, but Mr. Netanyahu rebuffed the idea, saying any pauses would be contingent on the release of all Israeli hostages.

In the first two weeks of the war, roughly 90 percent of the munitions Israel dropped in Gaza were satellite-guided bombs of 1,000 to 2,000 pounds, according to a senior U.S. military official. The rest were 250-pound small-diameter bombs.

Asked about the U.S. request to use smaller bombs, a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces, Maj. Nir Dinar, said: “We don’t comment on munitions and our conversations with allies.”

Israel used at least two 2,000-pound bombs during an airstrike on Tuesday on Jabaliya, a dense area just north of Gaza City, according to experts and an analysis conducted by The New York Times of satellite images, photos and videos.

American military officials say that the smaller bombs are much better suited to the dense urban environments of Gaza. But Israel has over the years built up stocks of larger bombs, intended mostly to target hardened Hezbollah military positions in Lebanon.

The United States is now trying to send more of the smaller bombs to Israel, said the senior military official. If the United States can get those smaller munitions to Israel, American officials hope Israel will use them to mitigate the risk to civilians.

The United States has also increased the amount of intelligence that it is collecting in Gaza: American drones are flying over the enclave, searching for hostages held by Hamas and other groups, and U.S. military satellites have been redirected to monitor the enclave. The United States is also using aircraft on the two carriers in the Mediterranean to help collect additional intelligence, including electronic intercepts.

While the United States has increased the amount of intelligence that it is sharing with Israel, U.S. officials stressed they are not helping Israel pick targets for strikes.

American officials believe the less judicious Israel is, and the greater the Palestinian death toll, the more quickly pressure will build on its leaders to end the military operation. A more targeted campaign, U.S. officials tell them, could go on for longer and do more sustained damage to Hamas’s military wing.

“We do our best to destroy Hamas only, without harming the civilians,” said Iddo Ben-Anat, a deputy brigade commander leading part of the Israeli invasion of Gaza.

Arab leaders met with Mr. Blinken in Amman, Jordan, on Saturday, and demanded an immediate cease-fire, increasing pressure on the Biden administration to do more to rein in the Israeli campaign.

But Mr. Blinken publicly rebuffed the idea, saying, “It’s our view that a cease-fire now would simply leave Hamas in place, and able to regroup and repeat what it did on October 7.”

Democratic lawmakers and terrorism experts have said the higher the civilian casualty toll, the greater the resentment that will build in Gaza, resentment that Hamas can use to build further support.

Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts and an Iraq war veteran, said the America’s biggest mistake in that conflict was trying to provide “military solutions to fundamentally political problems.”

“Israel is not going to win their war against Hamas, which they have every right to fight, by military means alone,” Mr. Moulton said. “And often the wrong military means, like bombs that kill too many civilians, make the political endgame harder to reach.”

At the news conference in Tel Aviv, Mr. Blinken appeared to obliquely acknowledge that risk, arguing that while Hamas needed to be defeated “physically,” the international community needed to ensure that Hamas does not gain more followers in the process.

Mr. Blinken said that Hamas must be fought not just with military might, but also with “a better future, with a better vision” for the Palestinian people.

“Because in the absence of that, even after Hamas, those who sing the siren song of nihilism will find open ears,” Mr. Blinken said.

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Arab leaders met with Mr. Blinken in Jordan on Saturday and demanded an immediate cease-fire, increasing pressure on the Biden administration to do more to rein in the Israeli campaign.Credit…Alaa Al Sukhni/Reuters

Changing Israel’s approach is a critical priority for the Biden administration.

Mr. Blinken’s public comments that “we provided Israel advice that only the best of friends can offer on how to minimize civilian deaths” underscored the shift in the administration’s position. U.S. officials say their private messages to the Israelis have been more blunt.

The change in approach follows a string of Israeli strikes that have caused particularly large numbers of casualties, including Tuesday’s strike on Jabaliya that Israel said targeted a Hamas commander.

It is not clear how effective Israel’s campaign against Hamas has been. One senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive details, said the operations so far have not come close to destroying Hamas’s senior and middle leadership ranks.Other U.S. officials said Hamas is not analogous to Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, and has a far deeper bench of experienced midlevel military leaders, making it hard to assess the impact of killing any individual commander.

U.S. officials have been encouraging the Israelis to model their ground campaign against Hamas leaders on an approach that was employed by Stanley McChrystal when he commanded U.S. Special Operations forces as a lieutenant general in a targeted-killing campaign against Al Qaeda in Iraq that was at its most intense in 2006 to 2008.

That campaign, which killed the group’s leader in 2006, demonstrated to U.S. military theorists that the use of small teams of commandos, combined with precision strikes from drones and manned aircraft, can be effective at flushing out and targeting key leaders, and weakening their organizations.

Israeli officials have said the situation in Gaza is very different. None of the special operations raids the Americans carried out in Iraq took place in urban areas as dense as Gaza City.

Israel believes that some Hamas leaders are hiding in a vast tunnel network underneath the most populous parts of northern Gaza. Sending commando units into those tunnels would be a suicide mission, according to people briefed on the discussions between the United States and Israel.

American officials said the Israeli military has been looking for ways to force Hamas leaders to change their positions or alter their communications, moves that could help Israeli intelligence better pinpoint their locations and then strike them.

U.S. officials believe there are other ways to bring Hamas leaders out of the tunnels with operations less harmful to civilians in Gaza. They say that the ground force that Israel has put into Gaza should be able to begin to separate civilians from the militants, either through troop-intensive clearing operations or by conducting raids into parts of Gaza City designed to isolate militants.

Edward Wong in Washington, Patrick Kingsley in Tel Aviv and Ronen Bergman in northern Gaza contributed reporting.

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