Biden: I’m quietly working with Israel to ‘significantly’ lower IDF presence in Gaza

US president interrupted by ‘ceasefire now’ chants; Blinken, ahead of arrival in Israel, says Middle East leaders determined to prevent war from spreading to new fronts

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on January 8, 2024, where nine worshippers were killed in a mass shooting by a white supremacist in 2015.  (AP Photo/Mic Smith)
US President Joe Biden delivers remarks at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on January 8, 2024, where nine worshippers were killed in a mass shooting by a white supremacist in 2015. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)

US President Joe Biden said Monday that he was working to have Israel significantly reduce its military presence in Gaza, after being heckled by far-left protesters calling for a ceasefire in the Strip, during a speech at a church in South Carolina where a white supremacist killed nine Black worshipers in 2015.

“If you really care about the lives lost here… you should call for a ceasefire in Palestine,” a woman in the crowd could be heard interrupting the US president.

Unfazed by chants of “ceasefire now” that erupted from the crowd, Biden responded: “I understand their passion, and I’ve been quietly working with the Israeli government to get them to reduce and significantly get out of Gaza.”

“I’ve been using all that I can to do that,” he added.

The congregation at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Church then drowned out the noise of the demonstration by chanting, “Four more years!” to back Biden’s campaign for a second term in office.

The US has repeatedly said that it opposes a ceasefire that would leave Hamas intact, with the terror group vowing to continue carrying out attacks on Israel of the type it perpetrated on October 7, when thousands of terrorists burst into southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people and taking around 240 people hostage. Most of the victims were civilians.

In response to the shock onslaught, Israel vowed to eliminate the terror group and launched a wide-scale military campaign in Gaza. The offensive, which the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says has killed over 23,000 Palestinians in the past three months, has been sparked protests around the world. The figures issued by the Hamas-run authorities cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 8,500 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

The US president, who initially was staunchly supportive of Israel, has increasingly called on Jerusalem to avoid inflicting civilian casualties, warning in December that it risked losing global support by “indiscriminate” bombing — a charge strongly rejected by Israel.

His remarks came as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in the Middle East for a week of shuttle diplomacy amid heightened fears that the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza will spark a broader regional conflagration.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a World Food Program (WFP) regional warehouse in Amman on January 7, 2024, during his visit to the Jordanian capital as part of a Middle East tour aiming to ensure the Israel-Hamas war does not spread. (EVELYN HOCKSTEIN / POOL / AFP)

Blinken told reporters in Saudi Arabia on Monday — before he arrived in the Jewish state in the evening — that he had found leaders in the Middle East determined to prevent the conflict between Israel and Hamas from spreading and that all of those he spoke to realized the extent of the challenges.

But “no one thinks that anything will happen overnight,” he added.

Blinken also said after meeting with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi that countries in the region are interested in pursuing normalization of relations with Israel, but that it will require a clear path toward a Palestinian state.

“There’s a clear interest in the region in pursuing that, but it will require that the conflict end in Gaza and it will also clearly require that there be a practical pathway to a Palestinian state,” Blinken said.

“But the interest is there, it’s real, and it could be transformative.”

Blinken, speaking following his meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the oasis town of Al Ula, said he discussed the region’s future and there was broad agreement on a few objectives.

Those included that the West Bank and Gaza should be united under Palestinian-led governance and that the region needs to work toward normalizing ties, not division or conflict.

“For that to happen, we need to see the establishment of an independent Palestinian state,” Blinken said.

“Everywhere I went, I found leaders who are determined to prevent the conflict that we are facing now from spreading,” the American diplomat added.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a tent on January 8, 2024. (Saudi Press Agency)

He also said that countries expressed willingness to help Gaza stabilize and revitalize, adding that Washington would work with them on what that would require and what countries are prepared to do.

While in Israel, Blinken said he “will press on the absolute imperative to do more to protect civilians and to do more to make sure that humanitarian assistance is getting into the hands of those who need it.”

He said he will also focus on efforts to bring back hostages.

On Sunday, Blinken met with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Amman, and assured Arab leaders that Washington opposes the forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank, as far-right Israeli ministers have increasingly called for the voluntary resettlement of Gazans.

Abdullah had raised his country’s concerns over displacement with Blinken during their meeting in Amman, according to a palace statement.

“Palestinian civilians must be able to return home as soon as conditions allow. They cannot, they must not, be pressed to leave Gaza,” Blinken said at a press conference following a separate meeting with top Qatari officials in Doha.

Washington wants Israel’s Arab neighbors to play a role in reconstruction, governance and security in Gaza in the expectation that Israel’s offensive will remove Hamas, which has run the territory since 2007, officials have said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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