'Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely'

Biden hails Israel, Hamas ceasefire, sees ‘genuine opportunity’ to move forward

US president thanks Netanyahu for bringing end to Gaza fighting, backs Israel’s right to self-defense, promises to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome interceptors and stop Hamas rearming

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

US President Joe Biden speaks about a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, in the Cross Hall of the White House, May 20, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden speaks about a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, in the Cross Hall of the White House, May 20, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

US President Joe Biden on Thursday hailed a ceasefire agreed between Israel and Hamas, saying that he saw it as a “genuine opportunity” to push forward toward building a lasting peace in the Middle East.

“I believe we have a genuine opportunity to make progress and I’m committed to working toward it,” Biden said. He credited the Egyptian government with playing a crucial role in brokering the ceasefire and said he and top White House aides were intensely involved in an “hour by hour” effort to stop the bloodletting.

“I believe the Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity and democracy,” Biden said. “My administration will continue our quiet, relentless diplomacy toward that.”

Biden gave the four-minute speech in the Cross Hall of the White House, hours after the sides had agreed to the Egyptian-brokered unconditional cessation of hostilities.

The president began his remarks saying he had just gotten off the phone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, their sixth call since Israel launched Operation Guardian of the Walls in response to Hamas rocket fire on May 10.

“I commended him for bringing the current hostilities to a close within less than 11 days,” Biden said.

“I also emphasized what I’ve said throughout this conflict: The United States fully supports Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks from Hamas and other Gaza-based terrorist groups that have taken the lives of innocent civilians in Israel,” he added, sticking to a line that critics in the progressive wing of the party claimed was being viewed by Israel as a blank check to continue its bombing campaign in Gaza.

Biden said that during the call, Netanyahu expressed his appreciation for the Iron Dome missile defense system, funding for which was first approved by the Obama administration and was responsible for intercepting the vast majority of Gaza rockets headed for Israeli civilian areas. The president said he assured Netanyahu that the US would replenish its Iron Dome missile supply in the future.

The president offered his “sincere gratitude” to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi for his country’s efforts in brokering the ceasefire. Biden spoke with Sissi for the first time as president earlier Thursday and was updated on the efforts. The Biden administration has been seeking to take a tougher stance on Cairo’s human rights record than former president Donald Trump, who once called Sissi his “favorite dictator.”

Biden made a point of highlighting the US efforts aimed at deescalating the situation on the ground, in an apparent effort to rebuff criticism that the US had been disengaged and even blocking diplomatic measures aimed at bringing about a ceasefire. The US mission to the UN stood alone at the Security Council to block three joint statements calling for an immediate ceasefire and was slated to oppose a French resolution on the matter as well. Washington argued that such measures, which Israel opposed, would not have helped advance ceasefire efforts.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets then-US vice president Joe Biden upon his arrival to the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, Wednesday, March 9, 2016. (Debbie Hill, Pool, via AP)

But Biden officials stood by the position, with former Obama special envoy Martin Indyk tweeting Thursday that it had been part of an “arm around Israel” that proved effective in bringing about an end to the violence.

Before Operation Guardian of the Walls commenced, the State Department had been critical of Israel’s actions in Jerusalem, including the looming eviction of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and the police crackdown on protesters there as well as at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound.

But that criticism was largely tabled once the rocket fire began on May 10, with US officials repeatedly defending Israel’s right to defend itself and that there was no equivalency between Hamas firing rockets indiscriminately firing rockets at civilians and Israel’s response in which it seeks to avoid civilian casualties.

However, patience in Washington began to run out as the conflict dragged on, as civilian casualties began to pile up, and as pressure from within the Democratic party and from allies abroad grew.

A major turning point came last Saturday, the fifth day of the conflict, when Israel’s bombing of a media tower in Gaza that housed the offices of AP, Al Jazeera, and according to the IDF, Hamas operatives. The strike led to calls from Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, demanding an explanation for the strike. Israel passed along intelligence proving the Hamas-connection, but Yedioth Ahronoth reported that those involved in signing off on the strike have come to regret it as they only took out a cleared out Hamas office building while damaging Israel’s relationship with foreign media.

French President Emanuel Macron (R) and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi attend a video conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah II (on screen) to work on a concrete proposal for a ceasefire and a possible path to discussions between Israel and the Palestinians at the Elysee Palace in Paris, on May 18, 2021. (SARAH MEYSSONNIER / POOL / AFP)

From Saturday, engagement from the US stepped up a notch. By the next day, officials including Blinken began speaking of a need for an immediate ceasefire. On Wednesday, Biden told Netanyahu in a phone call that he expected an immediate de-escalation by the end of the day.

“We held intensive high-level discussions, hour by hour,” Biden said in his Thursday speech. His administration has highlighted over 80 calls and meetings senior officials have held with Israelis, Palestinians and other relevant regional players since the violence started.

The president mourned the high civilian death toll, particularly children, from the conflict.  “I send my sincere condolences to all the families, Israeli and Palestinian, who have lost loved ones and my hope for a full recovery for the wounded,” he said.

Rockets are launched towards Israel from Gaza City on May 20, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry says 232 people, including more than 66 minors, have been killed by Israeli strikes over the past 10 days. According to the IDF, more than 120 of those killed were members of Hamas and over 25 were members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad as of Monday night. The IDF also says some of the Gaza civilian fatalities were killed by the terror groups’ own rockets falling short and exploding in Gaza.

Twelve people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl, have been killed in rocket fire, and hundreds have been injured. Hamas and other Gaza terror groups have fired over 4,000 rockets and other projectiles at Israel.

Biden said the US “remains committed to working with the United Nations” in providing humanitarian assistance to Gaza and in reconstruction efforts in the enclave.

“We will do this in full partnership with the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas, the Authority, in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal,” he emphasized, referring to a challenge that Israel and international donors have had a hard time meeting in the past.

Insisting that Israelis and Palestinians deserve equal levels of freedom, Biden said his administration “will continue our quiet, relentless diplomacy toward that end.”

The president stopped short of saying the US would push for Israelis and Palestinians to enter diplomatic talks aimed at a two-state solution as many countries were pushing this week at the UN. The Biden administration has maintained that the sides are currently too far apart for such intensive efforts to be effective and that smaller steps toward that eventual goal of two states are preferred in the interim while unilateral steps by either side should be prevented.

Agencies contributed to this report

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