The Biden administration is concerned that Israel lacks achievable military objectives in Gaza and that the Israel Defense Forces are not yet ready to launch a ground invasion with a workable plan, senior administration officials said.
In telephone conversations with his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III stressed the need for careful consideration of how Israeli forces might launch a ground invasion of Gaza, where Hamas maintains an intricate network of tunnels beneath densely populated areas.
Biden administration officials insisted that the United States had not told Israel what to do and that it still supported the ground invasion. But the Pentagon sent a three-star Marine, Lt. Gen. James Glynn, along with other officers to help the Israelis with the challenges of urban warfare.
A Pentagon official said Monday that the deployment of General Glynn, Axios previously reported, did not mean that the Pentagon was making decisions for Israel. General Glynn, the official said, will not be on the ground in Israel if the invasion of Gaza begins.
Israeli officials in Washington did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But on Sunday, a diplomat from the Israeli embassy denied that the US government had advised the Israelis to delay the ground invasion. “The US is not putting pressure on Israel regarding the ground operation,” the diplomat said.
In his conversations with Mr. Gallant, Mr. Austin described the difficult campaign to clear the Iraqi city of Mosul of Islamic State fighters in 2016 and 2017. At that time, Mr. Austin was the head of United States Central Command, and American troops supported their Kurdish and Iraqi counterparts in the fight.
“The first thing everybody needs to know, and I think everybody knows, is that urban combat is extremely difficult,” Austin told ABC News’ “This Week” on Sunday.
He said he had “encouraged” Mr Gallant to “conduct his operations in accordance with the laws of war”. US officials are increasingly concerned that a ground invasion of Gaza could lead to a massive loss of civilian life.
He spoke by phone with Mr. Gallant again on Monday, Pentagon officials said, stressing the “importance of protecting civilians.” In an emailed statement, Brig. General Patrick S. Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said the two also discussed US security assistance to Israel.
But the administration is also concerned, officials said, that the Israel Defense Forces do not yet have a clear military path to achieving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s goal of rooting out Hamas. In talks with Israeli officials since the October 7 Hamas attack, US officials have said they have yet to see a workable plan of action.
President Biden has publicly alluded to it. During a speech in Tel Aviv last week, he warned that Israel would need “clarity about the goals and an honest assessment of whether the path you are on will achieve those goals.”
U.S. officials said Israel must decide whether, for example, to try to destroy Hamas by using surgical airstrikes combined with targeted strikes by special operations troops — as U.S. warplanes and Iraqi and Kurdish troops have done in Mosul — or push into Gaza with tanks and infantry, as US marines and soldiers, along with Iraqi and British forces, did in Fallujah in 2004.
Both tactics will result in heavy casualties, US officials said, but a ground operation could be far bloodier, for soldiers and civilians alike. At the Pentagon, many officials believe that the operations to clear Mosul and Raqqa in Iraq more than a decade after Fallujah are a better model for urban warfare.
“One of the things we’ve learned is how to take care of civilians in the combat zone, and they are part of the combat zone, and we, in accordance with the law of war, have to do what is necessary to protect those civilians,” said Mr. Austin on Sunday.
But both Mosul and Raqqa resulted in significant civilian casualties. Although such figures can vary widely, The Associated Press put the number of civilians killed during the effort to liberate Mosul from Islamic State fighters between 9,000 and 11,000. The Islamic State had only two years to prepare its defenses in Mosul, according to Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute.
“Hamas has had 15 years to prepare a dense ‘defense in depth’ that integrates underground, ground and above-ground fortifications, communication tunnels, emplacements and combat emplacements,” wrote Mr. Knights in an analysis earlier this month“as well as potential minefields, improvised explosive devices, explosively shaped anti-armor mines and buildings planted as explosive mines.”
Sen. Jack Reed, the Rhode Island Democrat who heads the House Armed Services Committee, called on Israel on Monday to delay the ground invasion of Gaza to buy time for hostage negotiations, allow more humanitarian aid to reach Palestinian civilians and give Israeli commanders more opportunities for fines -adjust your urban-combat planning.
“From an operational standpoint, this is very complicated, and the more intelligence you gather and the more your troops can take into urban combat, the better,” Mr. Reed said by telephone from Cairo, where he and other senators were wrapping up a trip to Saudi Arabia. Israel and Egypt. “A little extra time might help. There are so many factors. Rushing into this is probably not the best approach.”
The Biden administration gave the same advice to Israel. Like US officials, Mr Reed said he still supports a ground invasion to destroy Hamas. But he warned that a block-by-block urban fight in Gaza would be a “long-term effort,” noting that it took nine months for the Iraqi military, aided by the United States, to drive Islamic State out of Mosul.
Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington.