Israeli defence minister heads to US for 'critical' talks on Gaza war

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant in a file picture on the Gaza border released by the Israeli army on May 7, 2024 (-)
Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant in a file picture on the Gaza border released by the Israeli army on May 7, 2024 (-)

Israel's Defence Minister Yoav Gallant was headed to Washington on Sunday for "critical" talks on the Gaza war raging since October 7 and surging cross-border tensions with Lebanon's Hezbollah movement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced hope for speedy progress on unfreezing US arms and ammunition deliveries from Israel's top ally which he said had dropped off sharply in recent months.

US President Joe Biden has been at odds with Israel's veteran right-wing leader over Gaza's surging civilian death toll, but US officials have said they were not aware of what Netanyahu was referring to on the arms issue.

The Israeli premier on Sunday told his cabinet that "about four months ago, there was a dramatic drop in the supply of armaments arriving from the US to Israel. We got all sorts of explanations, but... the basic situation didn't change."

However, he voiced hope the issue would now be cleared up: "In light of what I have heard in the last day, I hope and believe that this issue will be resolved in the near future."

Israeli forces again bombed Gaza on Sunday, a day after tens of thousands staged a protest rally in Tel Aviv against the government and to demand the return of hostages being held by Hamas.

Tensions have also flared on Israel's northern border with Lebanon whose Iran-backed Hezbollah movement has traded daily cross-border fire with the army, heightening fears of all-out war.

Gallant said he would "discuss developments in Gaza and Lebanon", vowing that "we are prepared for any action that may be required in Gaza, Lebanon and in additional areas".

He stressed that "our ties with the United States are more important than ever. Our meetings with US officials are critical to this war."

- 'War of annihilation' -

In Gaza, Israeli forces kept striking targets and battling Hamas, the Islamist militant group Israel has vowed to destroy over its October 7 attack, in a war that has devastated much of the coastal territory.

Warplanes had struck "dozens of terror targets throughout the Gaza Strip, including military structures, terrorists and terrorist infrastructure" over the past 24 hours, a military statement said.

As the Gaza war has raged on for over eight months, Israeli protesters have taken to the streets week after week demanding greater efforts to bring home the remaining hostages.

A rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday evening drew more than 150,000 people, according to the organisation Israel Democracy HQ – Hofshi B'Artzenu, which called it the biggest rally since the Gaza war began.

Many demonstrators voiced anger and frustration with Netanyahu and his far-right allies, accusing them of prolonging the war and putting the country's security and hostages at risk.

Many held signs reading "Crime Minister" and "Stop the War" while some lay on the ground covered in red paint to protest what they labelled the death of Israel's democracy.

In an address to the crowd, Yuval Diskin, a former head of Israel's domestic security agency Shin Bet, condemned Netanyahu as Israel's "worst prime minister".

- Lebanon tensions -

The Gaza war broke out with Hamas's October 7 attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

The militants also seized hostages, 116 of whom remain in Gaza although the army says 41 are dead.

Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed at least 37,598 people, also mostly civilians, Gaza's health ministry said.

An Israeli siege has deprived Gaza's 2.4 million people of most drinking water, food, fuel and other essentials.

"This war must stop," said Umm Siraj al-Balawi, surviving in a makeshift shelter amid a field of rubble, with strung-up sheets protecting her young children from the blazing sun.

"People are getting displaced from house to house, tent to tent, school to school," she said. "This is a war of displacement. It's a war of annihilation."

Lebanon's Hezbollah meanwhile said it had targeted a military position in northern Israel "with an attack drone" in response to the killing of a commander of the Jamaa Islamiya group in a strike on eastern Lebanon.

Israel said no one was injured in the attack Sunday.

Hezbollah had hours earlier published a video excerpt purporting to show locations in Israel along with their coordinates, amid heightening fears of an all-out conflict.

Israel's military said last Tuesday that a plan for a Lebanon offensive had been "approved and validated".

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah responded with threats that no part of Israel would be spared in the event of a full-scale war.