Israeli defence minister flies to US for ‘critical’ talks on Gaza and Lebanon

<span>Yoav Gallant (left) at a previous meeting with the US defence secretary (not pictured).</span><span>Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters</span>
Yoav Gallant (left) at a previous meeting with the US defence secretary (not pictured).Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Israel’s defence minister has flown to meet senior Biden administration officials in Washington for what he has described as “critical” talks over the twin conflicts with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Yoav Gallant, accompanied by the Israel Defense Forces’ deputy chief of staff, will meet the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, as well as the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and Joe Biden’s special envoy, Amos Hochstein.

Gallant’s visit came as Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, repeated his claim that the Biden administration was presiding over a “dramatic drop” in arms shipments to Israel in recent months, a charge that has angered US officials, who have described it as “perplexing”.

In a statement on Sunday, Netanyahu reiterated his resistance to ending the war in Gaza – one of Hezbollah’s conditions for de-escalation – while Hamas is still in place.

Describing his visit, Gallant said: “During these meetings I plan to discuss developments in Gaza and Lebanon. These [discussions] are particularly important and impactful at this time. We are prepared for any action that may be required in Gaza, Lebanon and in additional areas.”

Some Israeli officials have linked a push into Rafah, the southern area of Gaza, where it says it is targeting the last battalions of Hamas, to a potential refocus on the border with Lebanon, where escalating exchanges of fire between Israel and Hezbollah have increased fears of a wider war there.

Gallant appeared to make the same link in his statement. “The transition to phase C in Gaza is of great importance. I will discuss this transition with US officials, how it may enable additional things, and I know that we will achieve close cooperation with the US on this issue as well,” he said.

Amid concerns that fighting with Hezbollah could escalate into a wider war, the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, repeated threats that his movement would strike widely throughout Israel.

The Lebanese armed group on Saturday evening published a video showing Israeli positions and coordinates, along with an excerpt of a speech last week in which Nasrallah said: “If war is imposed on Lebanon, the resistance will fight without restrictions or rules.”

As exchanges continued between the two sides, air alarms were triggered on Sunday morning in Israel’s Lower Galilee after a Hezbollah drone was intercepted in the Misgav region south of the city of Karmiel, near a defence factory, further south than in previous attacks.

Early on Sunday, Israel also intercepted a drone outside its airspace that had been launched by an Iran-allied group in Iraq, as it was reported that other Iran-allied groups in the region had offered to send fighters to support Hezbollah in the event of a wider war.

Almost daily exchanges of fire have occurred along Lebanon’s frontier with northern Israel since fighters from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip staged a bloody assault on southern Israel in early October that set off the war in Gaza.

The situation to the north worsened this month after an Israeli airstrike killed a senior Hezbollah military commander in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah retaliated by firing hundreds of rockets and explosive drones into northern Israel.

Israeli officials have threatened a military offensive in Lebanon if no deal is negotiated to push Hezbollah away from the border.

Nasrallah said in a speech on Wednesday that militant leaders from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other countries had previously offered to send tens of thousands of fighters to help Hezbollah, but he said the group already had more than 100,000 fighters.

“We told them, ‘Thank you, but we are overwhelmed by the numbers we have,’” Nasrallah said.

Officials from Lebanese and Iraqi groups backed by Iran say Iran-backed fighters from around the region will join in if war erupts on the Lebanon-Israel border. Thousands of such fighters are already deployed in Syria and could easily slip through the porous border into Lebanon.

“We will be [fighting] shoulder to shoulder with Hezbollah” if an all-out war breaks out, one official with an Iran-backed group in Iraq told the Associated Press in Baghdad, insisting on speaking anonymously to discuss military matters. He refused to give further details. The official, along with another from Iraq, said some advisers from Iraq were already in Lebanon.

An official with a Lebanese Iran-backed group, also requesting anonymity, said fighters from Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, Afghanistan’s Fatemiyoun, Pakistan’s Zainabiyoun Brigade and the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen could come to Lebanon to take part in a war.

Netanyahu said on Sunday that the row with the US over weapons delays would be resolved soon. “About four months ago, there was a dramatic drop in the supply of armaments arriving from the US to Israel. We got all sorts of explanations, but … the basic situation didn’t change,” he told a cabinet meeting.

“In light of what I have heard in the last day, I hope and believe that this issue will be resolved in the near future.”

He said top Israeli officials had lobbied their US counterparts at “the highest levels ... at all levels” for speedier weapons deliveries. “After months of no change in this situation, I decided to give it a public expression,” he said.