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US-led force to patrol Red Sea in response to attacks by Houthis backing Palestinians

Published 12/17/2023, 09:53 PM
Updated 12/18/2023, 05:45 PM
© Reuters. Palestinians gather to unload boxes with bottles of water from trucks, amid drinking water shortages, as the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas continues, at Rafah border with Egypt, in the southern Gaza Strip Decembe

By Nidal al-Mughrabi, Bassam Masoud and James Mackenzie

CAIRO/GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Several countries have agreed to jointly carry out patrols in the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden to try to safeguard commercial shipping against attacks by Yemen's Houthi rebels, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said.

The Iran-aligned group says the aim of its missile and drone attacks is to support the Palestinians as Israel and Hamas wage war in the Gaza Strip. On Monday, Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi politburo, told Al Jazeera that his group will be able to confront any coalition formed by the United States that could deploy to the Red Sea.

Austin, who is on a trip to Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's headquarters in the Middle East, said participating countries led by the United States include the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain.

"This is an international challenge that demands collective action. Therefore today I am announcing the establishment of Operation Prosperity Guardian, an important new multinational security initiative," Austin said in a statement early on Tuesday.

Austin on Monday said Washington's support for Israel was "unshakable" but he urged its ally to do more to protect civilians as its war against Hamas brought yet more death and destruction to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which Israel has besieged following an attack by Hamas on Israel on Oct. 7.

There is growing concern from foreign governments and international organisations over the death toll among civilians in Gaza from Israeli bombardments as well as rising hunger and destitution.

The Gaza health ministry said on Monday that 19,453 Palestinians had been killed and 52,286 wounded in the Israeli assault on the Hamas-ruled enclave in more than two months of warfare.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to achieve total victory over Hamas, whose fighters killed 1,200 people and took 240 hostages in the surprise Oct. 7 raid into Israel that triggered the war, according to Israeli tallies.

TALKS ON REDUCING HARM

Austin told a press conference in Tel Aviv he had discussed with Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant how to reduce harm to civilians trapped in the battlefield. They also talked about a transition from major combat to a lower-intensity conflict.

"In any campaign, there will be phases," Austin said. "We will also continue to urge the protection of civilians during conflict and to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza."

While the United States provides Israel with weapons and diplomatic support, it has recently sharpened its tone towards Netanyahu's government. Last week President Joe Biden said Israel risked losing international support because of what he called its "indiscriminate" bombing.

Austin, however, offered reassurance on Monday, saying: "American support for Israel security is unshakable. Israel is not alone."

Gallant meanwhile said Israel would gradually transition to the next phase of its operations in Gaza and displaced people would likely be able to return first to the north of the enclave.

Austin also renewed U.S. calls for a two-state solution to the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying both Israelis and Palestinians "deserve a horizon of hope". Those remarks followed a meeting with Netanyahu, who over the weekend expressed pride in past opposition to the formation of a Palestinian state.

STARVATION AND HOMELESSNESS IN GAZA

The war has left Gaza largely in ruins. Food is scarce for the territory's 2.3 million people, basic services have collapsed and most people are homeless.

Human Rights Watch in a report on Monday accused Israeli forces of deliberately blocking delivery of water, food and fuel, razing agricultural areas and depriving people of items needed for survival.

Israel responded by calling HRW an "antisemitic and anti-Israeli" group with no moral right to criticise after its "silent" reaction to Hamas' Oct. 7 rampage.

Israel denies targeting civilians and says Hamas is to blame for high casualties by embedding itself in residential areas. Government spokesperson Tal Heinrich also said there were zero restrictions on the amount of food and water allowed into Gaza.

In Deir al-Balah, central Gaza, medics said 12 Palestinians had been killed and dozens wounded, while in Rafah in the south, an Israeli air strike on a house left at least four people dead.

An Israeli tank shell hit the maternity building inside Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, killing a 13-year-old girl who had lost a leg in a previous hit, the Gaza health ministry said.

On the Israeli side, the military released the names of four more soldiers killed in combat in Gaza, making it 126 dead in the strip since its ground invasion began in late October.

Residents reported gunfire between Israeli soldiers and Hamas fighters in various spots up and down narrow Gaza, with the militants saying they had launched a series of attacks.

© Reuters. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meet, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel December 18, 2023. REUTERS/Phil Stewart

Reuters was unable to verify the state of operations or claims from either side.

Heightened violence also continued in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where four Palestinians were killed in an Israeli army raid on the Faraa refugee camp, the Palestinian health ministry said on Monday.

Latest comments

I'd like to see gaza renamed and turned into an uninhabited Israeli National Park dedicated to the slain Israeli victims of the 10 / 7 attacks.
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