The Israeli military bombarded dozens of sites in the Gaza Strip over the weekend as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to keep fighting in the territory, even as anguish over the Israeli military’s accidental killings of three hostages raised new questions about how his government is prosecuting the war.
The military said on Sunday that it had struck 200 locations in Gaza over the previous 24 hours amid a mounting outcry over the civilian toll there and calls for restraint by three of Israel’s most important allies.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III was flying to the Middle East on Sunday, the latest in a series of senior Biden administration officials to travel to the region, to press Israel to scale back its military campaign. And the foreign secretaries of Britain and Germany issued a joint call for a “sustainable” cease-fire, a change in tone from their previous voice of support for Israel.
Mr. Austin will meet this week with Mr. Netanyahu and Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, to discuss in detail when and how Israeli forces might carry out a new phase of fighting. American officials envision it as involving smaller groups of elite forces who would move in and out of population centers in Gaza, conducting more precise, intelligence-driven missions to find and kill Hamas leaders, rescue hostages and destroy tunnels, U.S. officials said.
Mr. Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel’s military would “fight to the end.” He began a government meeting in Tel Aviv by reading from a letter that he said came from families of Israeli soldiers killed fighting in Gaza.
“You have a mandate to fight,” Mr. Netanyahu read in Hebrew, according to a statement from his office. “You do not have a mandate to stop in the middle.”
Caught in the middle are Gaza’s beleaguered and besieged 2.2 million people.
Humanitarian aid began to dribble into Gaza on Sunday morning through a second border crossing, part of a tattered supply chain that the United Nations says is inadequate to address the ceaseless hunger, cold and spread of disease in the territory.
The Israeli authorities said Sunday evening that nearly 80 trucks passed through the crossing at Kerem Shalom, which the United States had pressured Israel to open. Previously aid was entering only from Egypt at the Rafah crossing.
Israel has received a cascade of criticism both for the humanitarian conditions in Gaza and the deaths of civilians there.
Pope Francis condemned an attack on the compound of the Catholic parish in Gaza, “where there are no terrorists, but families, children, people who are sick and have disabilities, and nuns.” A Palestinian woman and her daughter who were sheltering there were killed, and others were wounded, the pope said Sunday.
In addition, the French Foreign Ministry condemned the Israeli bombing of a residential building in Rafah that killed one of its staff on Wednesday.
The Washington Post reported Saturday that a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development was killed in an airstrike last month, spurring an internal protest in the agency.
The United Nations says 135 of its employees in Gaza have been killed.
And the Committee to Protect Journalists said over the weekend it was “deeply saddened” by the killing of Samer Abu Daqqa, an Al-Jazeera cameraman, in a drone strike in southern Gaza. His death brings the toll of media workers killed in the war to 64.
All told, the Gaza health authorities say nearly 20,000 people have been killed in territory since Oct. 7, when the Hamas-led raids into Israel killed 1,200 people.
As its soldiers battle street to street and building to building in Gaza, Israel says it is trying to limit civilian casualties. Israeli officials blame Hamas for the high death totals, saying it puts military installations in civilian areas, including in schools, mosques and hospitals. As of Sunday, 122 Israeli soldiers have died in ground operations in Gaza, the military said.
Adding to the pressure on Mr. Netanyahu’s government is the internal anger over Friday’s mistaken killing of three Israeli hostages.
The letter Mr. Netanyahu read Sunday from families of soldiers killed in the war appeared at odds with the message coming from relatives of Israelis still held hostage in Gaza, many of whom have taken to the streets to demand a cease-fire.
Weekly rallies in support of the hostages have drawn thousands to the Israeli military’s main headquarters in Tel Aviv. The killing of the three hostages added a sense of urgency to Saturday night’s rally.
“We see the current approach is not working,” said Deborah Galili, a protester from Tel Aviv.
During a weeklong cease-fire between Israel and Hamas last month, 105 hostages were freed in exchange for the release of 240 Palestinians from Israeli jails; after negotiations broke down, the war resumed on Dec. 1. Several hostages have been confirmed dead by Israel’s military since the hostage deal collapsed.
David Barnea, the head of Mossad, Israel’s spy service, met with Qatari officials on Friday in Europe to discuss the possibility of a renewed pause in the fighting and further exchanges of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners. The meeting, planned before the deaths of the hostages, offered a glimmer of hope to families that another deal could be struck.
Israel has been partly shielded from international pressure in recent weeks by the steadfast support from the United States, which earlier this month cast the only “no” vote in the United Nations Security Council on a resolution calling for a cease-fire.
But Washington has shifted its public tone over the past week, with President Biden criticizing what he said was “indiscriminate” bombing by the Israeli military and warning that Israel was losing support.
Mr. Austin also warned this month that Israel faced a “strategic defeat” if it did not work to protect Palestinian civilians.
In a sign of the urgency of this moment in the war, Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will join Mr. Austin in Israel.
Mr. Austin’s visit, his second to Israel since the attacks of Oct. 7, is part of a ramped up effort by the administration to urge Israel to wrap up the high-intensity part of the war. Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, met with Israeli leaders on Thursday about the direction of the conflict. Mr. Sullivan did not specify a timetable, but U.S. officials said Mr. Biden wants Israel to switch to more precise tactics in about three weeks.
European leaders, meanwhile, are calling for varying permutations of a cease-fire.
The foreign minister of France, Catherine Colonna, who was in Israel on Sunday for talks with Israeli leaders, called for an “immediate truce” to facilitate the release of remaining hostages and to get more humanitarian aid into Gaza.
In a joint opinion article published in The Sunday Times of London, Britain’s foreign secretary, David Cameron, and the foreign minister of Germany, Annalena Baerbock, issued a more qualified call for a cease-fire. They argued, as has Mr. Biden, that calling for an immediate cease-fire would only benefit Hamas. And they echoed the Biden administration in saying that “too many civilians have been killed” in Gaza by the Israeli military.
But they expressed support for a cease-fire that would go beyond a temporary pause in the fighting. “We share the view that this conflict cannot drag on and on,” they wrote. “Our goal cannot simply be an end to fighting today. It must be peace lasting for days, years, generations,” they added. “We therefore support a cease-fire, but only if it is sustainable.”
The two leaders also said Israel would “not win this war if its operations destroy the prospect of peaceful coexistence with Palestinians.”
Mr. Netanyahu has so far rejected an immediate cease-fire and has opposed American calls for Gaza to be governed by a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority as a stage toward a two-state solution, which both the United States and the European Union support.
In a news conference on Saturday night, Mr. Netanyahu said he was “proud” to have prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state in the past and described the Oslo Accords as “a fateful mistake.”
Aaron Boxerman, Eric Schmitt, Vivian Yee and Steven Erlanger contributed reporting.