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Israeli defence chief to discuss Gaza, Lebanon during US visit Reuters

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Mayan Rubel

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant flew to Washington on Sunday to discuss the next phase of the Gaza war and escalating hostilities on the Lebanese border where a gunfight with Hezbollah has raised fears of an escalating conflict.

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah launched attacks on Israel shortly after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack sparked the Gaza war, and the two sides have been locked in fierce clashes for months. Hezbollah has said it will not stop its attacks until there is a ceasefire in Gaza.

“We stand ready for any action needed in Gaza, Lebanon and elsewhere,” Gallant said in a statement before departing for Washington, where he will meet with U.N. Secretary-General Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

After an Israeli military strike killed Hezbollah’s top leader in early June, the group launched its largest volley of rockets and drones at Israeli towns and military sites in the conflict so far.

U.S. special envoy Amos Hochstein visited Israel and Lebanon last week to try to ease tensions amid increased cross-border shooting and escalating rhetoric on both sides. The Israeli military said one soldier was seriously wounded in a drone strike on Sunday.

Some Israeli officials have linked the attack on Rafah in southern Gaza, where Israel is said to be targeting the last battalion of the Islamist militant group Hamas, to a possible focus on Lebanon.

Gallant appeared to make a similar reference in his statement.

“The transition to Phase C in Gaza is crucial. I will be discussing this transition with U.S. officials about how it will enable us to do more. I am confident that we will work closely with the U.S. on this issue as well,” Gallant said.

Scaled back operations in Gaza would provide forces to counter Hezbollah if Israel launches a ground offensive or steps up airstrikes.

Postwar Plans

Officials have described the third and final phase of Israel’s offensive against Gaza as one in which they aim to end the fighting while intensifying efforts to stabilize Hamas’ post-government rule and begin rebuilding the much-destroyed Gaza Strip.

Gallant, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, has been sparring with the prime minister in recent months, calling for a clearer post-war plan for Gaza that doesn’t leave the onus on Israel, a demand echoed by the White House.

Netanyahu is walking a tightrope as he tries to keep his government united, balancing the demands of his defense officials, including former generals like Gallant, with those of his far-right coalition partners, who have resisted any post-Gaza strategy that could pave the way for a future Palestinian state.

Yuli Edelstein, chairman of the Israeli Knesset’s foreign affairs and defense committee, told Army Radio on Sunday that the fight against Hezbollah would be complicated either way, now and in the future.

“We are not in a good position to fight on both the southern and northern fronts. We will have to change our deployment in the south in order to fight in the north,” said Edelstein, also a Likud member.

Edelstein criticized Netanyahu for saying in a video released last week that the Biden administration was “withholding arms and ammunition from Israel,” which sparked a standoff with the White House.

President Joe Biden’s administration suspended shipments of the 2,000- and 500-pound bombs in May, fearing the impact if they were used in populated areas of Gaza. Israel was still set to receive billions of dollars’ worth of U.S.-made weaponry.

“We are hopeful that more can be accomplished through closed-door discussions rather than through attempts to apply pressure via video,” Edelstein said of Gallant’s visit.

Israel’s ground and air operations in the Gaza Strip began after Hamas-led militants stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking more than 250 hostages, according to an Israeli tally.

According to Palestinian health officials, the attacks have killed more than 37,400 people and left almost the entire population of the area homeless and impoverished.

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