Joe Biden has issued a statement for the first time expressing support for a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza’s militant rulers Hamas, after a phone conversation with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
However, the US president stopped short of calling for an immediate halt to the eight days of Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocket barrages that have killed more than 200 people, the vast majority of them Palestinian.
“The president reiterated his firm support for Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks,” the White House statement said after the phone call, the second known one between the leaders in three days.
“He encouraged Israel to make every effort to ensure the protection of innocent civilians. The two leaders discussed progress in Israel’s military operations against Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza. The president expressed his support for a ceasefire and discussed US engagement with Egypt and other partners towards that end.”
Israeli reports quoting military officials suggested that Israeli forces wanted to continue their military operations for another day or two before withdrawing. Netanyahu told Israeli security officials late on Monday that Israel would “continue to strike terror targets” in Gaza “as long as necessary in order to return calm and security to all Israeli citizens.”
Meanwhile, the US blocked – for the third time in a week – the adoption of a joint UN security council statement calling for a halt to Israeli-Palestinian violence. White House press secretary Jen Psaki and national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the US was focusing instead on “quiet, intensive diplomacy”.
Secretary of state Antony Blinken, speaking in Denmark on Monday, said the US was ready to help if Israel and Hamas signalled interest in ending hostilities – but that the US wasn’t demanding that they do so.
“Ultimately it is up to the parties to make clear that they want to pursue a ceasefire,” Blinken said, before noting that it was “a big world and we do have responsibilities”.
The latest outbreak began in East Jerusalem last month when Israeli police cracked down on Palestinian public gatherings during Ramadan amid the threatened eviction of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers. Tensions exploded last week after Israeli police wounded hundreds of Palestinians during protests, and officers in riot gear stormed al-Aqsa mosque – the third holiest site in Islam.
Hamas then began firing rockets toward Jerusalem, triggering the Israeli assault on Gaza. Gaza health officials put the Palestinian death toll at 212, including 61 children and 36 women, since hostilities began last week. Ten people have been killed in Israel, including two children.
A US administration official familiar with Monday’s call told Associated Press the decision to not explicitly demand a ceasefire was intentional. Biden and top aides are concerned about the mounting bloodshed and loss of innocent life, but the statement’s wording reflects White House determination to support Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas, the unnamed official said.
Biden has been facing increasing pressure from his own party to take a tougher line towards Israel and press for an immediate ceasefire. There was outrage from some Democrats over a Washington Post report that the administration had approved the sale to Israel of $735m-worth of precision-guided bombs.
“The United States should not stand idly by while crimes against humanity are being committed with our backing,” the congresswoman Ilhan Omar said in a statement.
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer on Monday joined dozens of Democratic lawmakers – and one Republican, and independent Senator Bernie Sanders – in calling for the ceasefire by both sides. Another prominent Democrat, Adam Schiff, the House intelligence committee chairman, pressed the U.S. over the weekend to get more involved.
On Monday night, the top US military officer, Army General Mark Milley, warned that the violence could spread.
“My assessment is that you risk broader destabilization and you risk a whole series of negative consequences if the fighting continues,” Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters before landing in Brussels on Monday for talks with Nato allies. “It’s in no one’s interest to continue fighting.”
During the past week, Israeli attacks have destroyed a health clinic, hit the home of an aid worker, killed two doctors, destroyed high-rise residential towers, blown up a mattress factory and flattened the offices of international news organisations.
Israel says its strikes target militants. Hamas, the Islamist group that rules inside the strip, has stationed its fighters in and fired rockets from civilian areas. Ten people in Israel, including two children, have been killed by militants, who have launched more than 3,000 rockets during the past week.
President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi of Egypt, which has long acted as a mediator between Israel and Hamas, said on Monday a ceasefire could be within reach. “Hope still exists that a collective action could end the conflict,” he told reporters.
On Monday, the Israeli army said it launched artillery towards Lebanon in response to rocket fire from the neighbouring country that failed to hit the Jewish state.
“Six failed launch attempts were identified from Lebanon that did not cross into Israeli territory,” the army said in a statement. “Artillery forces fired toward the sources of the launches.”
A Lebanese military source told Agence France-Presse three “Grad-type rockets” rockets had been fired from near the border towards Israel. It is the second time rockets have been launched from Lebanese territory towards Israel since the latest hostilities flared.
The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) said that it was intensifying patrols after it detected the firing of rockets from the area of Rashaya Al Foukhar, north of Kfar Choub in southern Lebanon. Unifil added on Twitter that the situation in the area was now calm and that its head of mission remained in contact with all parties to ensure stability.