Austin on Rafah operation: ‘There’s better ways to do this’

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday offered one of his strongest criticisms yet of the Israeli Defense Forces campaign in Gaza and its new focus on Rafah, telling reporters at the Pentagon: “There’s a better way to do this.” 

Austin pointed to a lack of a plan for civilian care as Israeli forces make their way into the packed area on Gaza’s southern border. But he stopped short of saying the United States would stop providing aid to Israel, and dodged questions on recent UN arrest warrants against two of Israel’s top leaders for war crimes. 

Biden officials have said they don’t support a move by Israeli forces into Rafah, one of the last places left for civilians after Israel destroyed more than half of the buildings in Gaza. 

The new operation in Rafah has closed off one of the only crossings for food, fuel, and other humanitarian aid. And while the United States in recent days established a floating pier to deliver aid, even USAID officials acknowledge it won’t be enough to meet the food needs of the population. 

UN’s humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths on Sunday called the IDF’s decision to close the Rafah crossing and further advance into the area “apocalyptic.” 

Austin was far more muted in his assessment, but still critical. 

“I think you can conduct military operations effectively and also account for civilians in the battlespace,” he told reporters. “You know, we have learned a lot. The United States has learned a lot in terms of this type of operation over the past several years and, again, there’s better ways to do this…where you can account for both. You can protect the people and also accomplish your objectives.”

“I think before this fight kicked off in Gaza, there were some 275,000 or so people that lived in and around Rafah. That number grew to 1.2…million or so. And that’s a big jump. And that’s a lot of people in a very compressed battlespace. It’s in a very difficult urban area and it’s, you know, urban combat is very, very intense, very difficult to begin with. So, unless you account for those civilians and do things differently, then I think you stand to have a lot more casualties going forward. And that’s something that we’d like to see change.”

Austin, a retired four-star general, played a large role in the pacification of Sadr City and Basra in Iraq in the mid 2000s. Much like Rafah and the other parts of Gaza, Sadr City was a densely populated area, with as many as 2 million residents, where insurgent fighters could easily move into and out of key fighting positions using urban structures to great defensive advantage. Austin elected for a long, block-by-block campaign that exposed troops to a fair of amount of risk, but limited—somewhat—the use of airstrikes and wide-area effects like mortars in order to preserve civilian life. 

The Israeli campaign in Gaza, in contrast, has relied heavily on artillery and air strikes—some 22,000 strikes since the start of operations there in October, according to Israeli officials. That’s almost 7,000 more air strikes than the entire U.S.-led anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria between 2014-and 2017, according to the British arms-monitoring group Airwars. And the Israeli strikes have included the use of 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions, which were provided by the United States, as well as un-guided bombs. 

The degree to which that strategy is appropriate depends on whom you ask, but as Raphael Cohen, the director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program at RAND Project AIR FORCE, pointed out in a November op-ed, Israel’s previous attempts at limited raids failed. 

The United Nations, citing figures from the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, said last week that the death toll in Gaza now stands at 35,000, and 52 percent were women and children. 

In a recent interview with Dr. Phil, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put the number at 30,000 but said 14,000 of those were “terrorists.” 

U.S. President Joe Biden has described Israel’s bombing campaign as “indiscriminate” but has continued to provide weapons to the Israeli government, with a recent package valued at more than $1 billion for tank shells, tactical vehicles, and mortar rounds.

Said Austin, “In terms of the decision to provide weapons to Israel, again, I won’t engage in any type of speculation going forward, but, my hope would be that we do what’s necessary to protect civilians in a battle space. And you’ll hear me say that over and over again.”

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