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Biden voices support for Gaza cease-fire in call with Netanyahu

By
Darryl Coote & Sommer Brokaw & Don Jacobson
Hamas militants parade through Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip during an anti-Israel rally on May 28. Photo by Ismael Mohamad/UPI | License Photo

May 17 (UPI) -- President Joe Biden on Monday voiced support for a cease-fire agreement ending escalating violence in Gaza, the White House said, but did not call on Israel to immediately halt its airstrikes.

During a phone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Biden "reiterated his firm support for Israel's right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks" launched from Gaza by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, according to an issued readout.

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The President "expressed his support for a ceasefire and discussed U.S. engagement with Egypt and other partners towards that end," statement said.

But while Biden "encouraged Israel to make every effort to ensure the protection of innocent civilians," the statement did not indicate he had asked Netanyahu for an immediate end to Israel's bombing campaign in Gaza.

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The hostilities continued overnight and into Monday as fighting with Hamas entered its second week despite repeated calls for a cease-fire from the international community.

The Israeli military said fighter jets overnight "neutralized" 9.3 miles of Hamas' so-called Metro tunnel system, which it has been targeting for days.

Fifty-four jets struck roughly 35 targets and the tunnel system with 110 munitions as part of the Israel Defense Forces' "significant operation against the underground terror infrastructure in the Gaza Strip," it said, adding it was its third round of attacks against the tunnel system in northern Gaza, a self-governing Palestinian territory.

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Nine residences the military said were used as Hamas infrastructure and housed high-ranking officials, including various battalion commanders for the cities of Beit Hanoun and Sabra, were also hit.

Meanwhile, Hamas, which the U.S. State Department has designated a foreign terrorist organization, continues to fire rockets at Israel. The IDF said Hamas launched 60 rockets overnight with about 10 of them falling back into Gaza and dozens more intercepted by Israeli air defense fighters.

Sheikh Jarrah, a spokesperson for Hamas' armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, told The Times of Israel its recent barrage of rocket fire was in response to Israeli airstrikes on Sunday that killed 42 people, including 10 children and 16 women, making it the deadliest day of conflict since the fighting re-ignited May 10.

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The Palestinian Ministry of Health said during the eight days of fighting at least 212 Palestinians have been killed, including 61 children, and another 1,400 have been wounded with expectations that the death toll will rise.

On Sunday night, the ministry said it was still attempting to dig people and bodies out from the rubble of the earlier attack.

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The ministry has accused Israel of targeting its health facilities, including its headquarters, bringing a halt to its laboratory services, including coronavirus testing and the administration of COVID-19 vaccines as well as pregnancy services.

The targeting of residential areas, it said, has displaced some 40,000 families to shelters, which threaten the spread of COVID-19.

"The targeting of medical institutions is a war crime," Dr. Abu Al-Rish said during a press conference Monday, according to a ministry press release.

The World Food Program said Monday that it is now supporting more than 51,000 people in north Gaza due to the rising humanitarian situation caused by the conflict.

"People in Gaza have already been living on the edge and many families struggle to put food on the table," Corinne Fleischer, WFP regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement. "Their situation has deteriorated even further over the past year due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions."

"The majority of the population cannot withstand further shocks and the current situation could unleash a crisis that could spill into the entire region," Fleischer said.

The Israel Defense Forces says it does not target civilians and has repeatedly accused Hamas of placing military targets in residential buildings and civilian areas to use Palestinians as human shields. Israel also blames the death toll on errant Hamas rockets that fail to make it over the border.

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In Israel, at least 10 people have died, including two children.

Israel says Hamas has fired about 3,150 rockets at it since it began its barrage May 10 in response to Israel failing to withdraw security forces from a Jerusalem mosque that was earlier raided amid rising tensions between the two sides as Israel seeks to evict Palestinian families from their East Jerusalem Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

In response to Hamas' rockets, Israel launched Operation Guardian of the Walls, hitting more than 1,500 targets in Gaza.

On Sunday, Biden spoke with both Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu, according to White House readouts of the calls.

To Abbas, Biden stressed the need for Hamas to cease firing rockets while expressing concern over the deaths of innocent civilians. To Netanyahu, he reiterated the United States' support of Israel's right to self-defense.

To both leaders, Biden "expressed his support for steps to enable the Palestinian people to enjoy the dignity, security, freedom and economic opportunity that they deserve" as well as affirming his support for a two-state solution.

Meanwhile, 29 Democrats issued a statement Sunday urging an immediate cease-fire "to prevent any further loss of civilian life and to prevent further escalation of conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories."

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The calls for a cease-fire came as foreign ministers failed Sunday to produce a U.N. Security Council statement on the conflict, with China accusing the United States of preventing one from being finalized.

"The Security Council shoulders the primary responsibility for safeguarding international peace and security," Wang Yi, China's foreign minister, said in a statement. "Regrettably, simply because of the obstruction by one country, the Security Council hasn't been able to speak with one voice."

In a separate statement delivered by Norway's permanent representative to the United Nations Mona Juul, the nations of Norway, Tunisia and China demanded an immediate cessation to all fighting.

"We urged both sides to work to urgently lower tensions and end the violence," they said.

On Sunday, Netanyahu told the public in a press conference with military leaders that they have exacted a "heavy" price from Hamas, destroying in days tunnels its military took a decade and vast capital to produce.

Concerning international pressure, he said Israel has received "very serious backing" from countries including the United States.

He said the goal is to stop the violence and then after rehabilitate relations between Jews and Arabs so they can coexist, cooperate and be partners in "the great success called the State of Israel."

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However, Netanyahu signaled that there was no end to the ongoing fighting in sight.

"We are continuing to take action, even at this hour, as long as necessary to restore quiet and security to you, citizens of Israel," he said. "It will yet take time."

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