Top United States officials prodded Israel on Monday to do more to protect civilians in the Gaza Strip and sought to restart talks aimed at releasing hostages as international pressure mounted on Israel to scale back its war against Hamas.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, making his second trip to Israel since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, declared that U.S. support for Israeli security “remains unshakable.” But he also said that “democracies are stronger and more secure when we uphold the law of war.”
“As I’ve said, protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza is both a moral duty and a strategic imperative,” Mr. Austin said at a news conference with Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant. “So we will continue to stand up for Israel’s bedrock right to defend itself. And we will also continue to urge the protection of civilians during conflict and to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.”
Though Mr. Gallant said “there is no clock that is running,” he acknowledged that Israeli officials were discussing the next part of the conflict, as the Biden administration tries to persuade Israel to shift to more targeted operations after more than two months of heavy airstrikes.
“Soon, we will be able to distinguish between different areas in Gaza,” Mr. Gallant said. “In every area where we achieve our mission, we will be able to transition gradually to the next phase and start working on bringing back the local population.”
That could “be achieved maybe sooner in the north than in the south,” he said, adding that he was only trying to convey “an idea of what we are discussing.”
It is unclear what returning home might look like for Gazans. More than 60 percent of the housing units in the territory have been damaged or destroyed, according to the United Nations. The vast majority of Gaza’s 2.2 million residents have been displaced, with many packing into crowded shelters or living on the streets near the Egyptian border.
The Biden administration envisions Israel moving into a new phase of the war that would involve smaller groups of elite forces piercing in and out of population centers, conducting more precise missions to find and kill Hamas leaders, rescue the hostages seized in Israel on Oct. 7 and destroy the tunnels that the militants use to conceal their activities.
Mr. Austin appeared to allude to that strategy on Monday, saying he had shared with Israeli officials “thoughts about how to transition from high-intensity operations to lower-intensity and more surgical operations.”
U.S. officials say privately that President Biden wants Israel to switch to the more precise tactics in about three weeks. But Mr. Austin said, “This is Israel’s operation, and I’m not here to dictate timelines or terms.”
As Mr. Austin visited Israel, the C.I.A. director, William J. Burns, met in Warsaw with Israeli and Qatari officials for talks aimed at restarting the hostage and prisoner exchanges that collapsed after a weeklong truce last month, according to U.S. officials.
Mr. Burns met with David Barnea, the head of Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, and with Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani of Qatar. The Qataris host Hamas’s political wing in Doha and have been facilitating the negotiations.
The talks came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders are under growing domestic pressure to secure the release of the 129 hostages who are believed to remain in captivity, particularly after Israeli forces shot and killed three of them in Gaza last week.
The Israeli military said on Sunday that the hostages, all Israelis, had tried to use leftover food to create signs calling for help. The men emerged shirtless from a building, carrying a makeshift white flag, and tried to tell approaching Israeli soldiers in Hebrew that they were civilians, the military said.
The deaths have created widespread anguish in Israel, and prompted renewed calls for a pause in the fighting to allow more hostages to be released. On Monday, Hamas released the first video of hostages since the exchange agreement collapsed.
The video showed three men, bearded and seated. One of them speaks to the camera and identifies himself as a 79-year-old from the Nir Oz kibbutz, where Hamas militants kidnapped more than 70 people. The video includes subtitles in English that do not directly correspond to the Hebrew words used by the hostage, who pleads for the release of the captives.
The Israeli government and military have dismissed such videos as “psychological warfare.”
At the United Nations on Monday, the Security Council pushed back by a day a vote on a resolution calling for more humanitarian aid routes into Gaza by air, land and sea. The resolution also calls for the immediate release of the hostages and a sustainable halt to the fighting. The United States has vetoed past resolutions calling for an immediate, permanent cease-fire.
Concern has also been growing about Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen launching drone and missile attacks on merchant ships in the Red Sea, a vital shipping lane that has become increasingly dangerous. Over the weekend, Britain and the United States said their militaries had shot down more than a dozen drones in the area.
On Monday, Mr. Austin said, “Iran’s support for Houthi attacks on commercial vessels must stop.”
Soon after, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a senior member of the Houthis, defended the attacks as an effort to force Israel to stop its military assault in Gaza. The United States, he said, has “no right to speak about international law, which your airstrikes and rockets have torn up and buried under the ruins of Gaza and Yemen.”
The war began after the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, which Israeli officials say killed about 1,200 people. About 240 people were taken hostage. Health officials in Gaza say nearly 20,000 people have been killed in the Israeli response.
The high death toll in Gaza, Pentagon officials say, may be attributable in part to Israel’s broad use of unguided air-to-ground munitions, which account for nearly half of the airstrikes.Even the precision-guided munitions that the United States military used in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan produced many civilian casualties, but unguided munitions — so-called dumb bombs — pose an even greater threat, analysts say.
Human Rights Watch went a step further, accusing Israel on Monday of starving civilians by blocking deliveries of food, water and fuel. The group said Israel’s actions could constitute a war crime. It cited statements by senior Israeli leaders to support its claim that depriving Gazans of necessities was a policy put in place by Israeli armed forces.
An Israeli government spokesman, Eylon Levy, rejected the report as “a lie.”
“We’re still pumping water into Gaza through two pipelines and have placed no restrictions on entry of food and water,” he said.
Mr. Gallant, the defense minister, also strongly defended the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza.
“Unlike our enemies, we are defending our values, and we operate according to international law,” he said. “The I.D.F. is operating to minimize the harm to civilian populations. We are also working with international partners to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid.”
Eric Schmitt reported from Tel Aviv, Julian E. Barnes from Washington and Michael Levenson from New York. Reporting was contributed by Rachel Abrams, Johnatan Reiss, Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Andrés R. Martínez, Farnaz Fassihi, Helene Cooper, Stanley Reed, Ephrat Livni and Vivian Nereim.