Palestinians search for bodies and survivors in the rubble of a residential building
Palestinians search for bodies and survivors in the rubble of a residential building destroyed in an Israeli airstrike, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Friday, December 15, 2023. Image Credit: AP

Jerusalem: Washington is pushing Israel to focus the war in Gaza on precise targeting of Hamas leaders rather than widespread bombing and ground operations, the White House national security adviser said on Friday, amid signs of differences over timing.

Israel has so far resisted increasing global pressure to rein in the Gaza offensive, which has killed almost 19,000 Palestinians since the Hamas assault that killed around 1,200 people in southern Israel on October 7.

"There will be a transition to another phase of this war, one that is focused in more precise ways on targeting the leadership and on intelligence driven operations," the adviser, Jake Sullivan, told reporters during a visit to Israel.

"When exactly that happens and under exactly what conditions will be a continuing intensive discussion between the United States and Israel," he said.

Sullivan said he had discussed the timing of the shift at his meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the war cabinet and military chiefs on Thursday.

War will last months

Prior to his meetings, senior US officials said the less intense phase should begin within weeks, the New York Times and Axios reported, but Israel's defence minister said he told Sullivan the war would last "more than several months." In his comments on Friday, Sullivan also said the war would last months, but said tactics would evolve during that time-frame.

Sullivan declined to answer when asked whether the United States could hold back military aid if Israel does not reduce civilian casualties, saying the best way to reach an agreement was in private discussions.

Coinciding with Sullivan's visit, Israel announced it had opened a second border crossing with Gaza for humanitarian aid, a move that was welcomed by Washington.

Sullivan also met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday. Abbas told Sullivan that Israel's attack on Palestinian people, especially in Gaza, must stop, the official WAFA news agency reported.

Faster end

Behind closed doors, the White House has been pushing for a faster end to the high intensity phase of the war, US officials have said.

White House spokesperson John Kirby told reporters at a regular media briefing on Thursday that Sullivan had discussed the shift happening in "the near future." President Joe Biden wants Israel to switch tactics in about three weeks, the New York Times reported, citing four US officials.

Biden warned this week that international opinion was swinging against Israel because of high civilian casualties in Gaza.

Sullivan said the US wanted "to see the results" that match Israel's assurances that it distinguishes between civilians and militants. He criticised Hamas for using civilians as shields, saying fighters were operating from schools and hospitals, a charge the group denies.

Israel's top war targets include Mohammed Deif, who heads Hamas' military wing and was the mastermind of the October 7 assault; his second in command, Marwan Issa; and Hamas' leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar.