Biden official heading to Israel amid efforts to end Gaza fighting

Netanyahu speaks to Blinken, thanks him for supporting Jewish state’s right to defend itself, ahead of arrival of deputy assistant secretary Hady Amr

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

Rockets are launched toward Israel from Rafah, in the southern the Gaza Strip on May 12, 2021 (SAID KHATIB / AFP)
Rockets are launched toward Israel from Rafah, in the southern the Gaza Strip on May 12, 2021 (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

US deputy assistant secretary for Israeli-Palestinian affairs Hady Amr will fly to Israel later Wednesday as Washington steps up its engagement aimed at de-escalating the ongoing violence between Israel and Hamas.

Amr will head to the region “immediately” to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a Wednesday press conference, confirming earlier Times of Israel reports.

“He will bring to bear his decades of experience, and in particular, he will urge on my behalf and on behalf of President Biden a de-escalation of violence. We are very focused on this,” Blinken said.

The Biden administration official will arrive in Israel as the country has suffered waves of rocket fire from Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip. Israel has responded to the rockets with strikes on hundreds of targets of Hamas and other terror groups in the Palestinian enclave.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department in Washington, April 5, 2021. (Al Drago/Pool via AP)

The fighting has killed at least six people in Israel and dozens in Gaza. Israel maintains half of the Palestinians killed were Hamas fighters.

It will be Amr’s first trip to the region as a Biden official. With the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs not yet approved by Congress and with no plans to appoint a special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Amr is the most senior member of the administration focusing on the issue.

Commenting further on the ongoing round of violence, Blinken said the “images that came out overnight are harrowing.”

“We believe Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live with safety and security,” said Blinken.

Hady Amr, now US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs, speaks at the Brookings Institute, where he was a fellow, on December 3, 2018. (Screen capture/YouTube)

When pressed on whether Israel’s response has been proportional due to the discrepancy in casualties between the sides, Blinken said, “There is a very clear and absolute distinction between a terrorist organization Hamas that is indiscriminately raining down rockets, in fact, targeting civilians and Israel’s response defending itself, that is targeting the terrorists who are raining down rockets on Israel.”

“But whenever we see civilian casualties, and particularly when we see children caught in the crossfire losing their lives, that has a powerful impact. I think Israel has an extra burden in trying to do everything it possibly can to avoid civilian casualties even as it responding in defense of its people,” he added.

Blinken later spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Foreign Ministry said. Netanyahu thanked Blinken for US support for Israel’s right to defend itself, a right that the US secretary of state reaffirmed during the call, the ministry said in a statement.

Amr’s trip comes after the Biden administration on Tuesday said Israel had a right to respond to rocket attacks from Gaza, while adding that Palestinians also have a right to security.

Israeli security forces stand by extinguished burnt vehicles in Holon near Tel Aviv, on May 11, 2021, after rockets from the Gaza Strip hit central Israel (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Senior US officials have been in contact with their Israeli counterparts in recent days regarding the ongoing escalation in Jerusalem and Gaza.

Blinken spoke Monday with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke with Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz and White House National Security Adviser spoke with National Security Council chairman Meir Ben-Shabbat.

It was the second conversation between the national security advisers in just over 48 hours.

Sullivan conveyed US President Joe Biden’s “unwavering support for Israel’s security and for its legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians,” according to a White House readout, which appeared to reference growing American concern over the number of Palestinian casualties in Israeli counter-strikes.

The US national security adviser also held talks Tuesday with officials in Cairo who have been involved in mediating between Israel and Hamas in an effort to reach a ceasefire.

A State Department readout on the Blinken-Ashkenazi call highlighted many of the same messages, while also including US concern over the recent violence in Jerusalem surrounding the Temple Mount compound and the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood where dozens of Palestinian families are under threat of eviction. Unlike previous US statements on the matter, this one did not include a specific condemnation of the planned evictions.

Speaking of the close contact between Israeli and US officials, Price at the briefing said, “We’ll always have a partner in the Israeli government.”

The State Department spokesman said US officials have also been speaking to their Palestinian counterparts, but did not identify the Palestinian officials, despite repeated requests. Asked at what level those talks with Palestinian officials have been, Price responded, “at the appropriate level,” hinting that the calls with Israeli officials have been between higher-ranking officials than those with Palestinian officials.

However, a senior US diplomat hand-delivered a letter from President Biden to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday, a White House National Security Council spokesperson told The Times of Israel, confirming what appeared to be the first correspondence the American leader has had with his Palestinian counterpart since taking office almost four months ago.

A woman was killed after a rocket impacted her home in Ashkelon, on May 11, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The official PA news agency WAFA said the letter dealt with “the latest political developments, the current situation and bilateral relations between the United States and the State of Palestine.”

“This is part of this administration’s ongoing outreach with the Palestinian leadership on a range of issues of mutual interest, including ongoing efforts to de-escalate violence and restore calm,” the National Security Council spokesperson said.

Over 1,050 rockets and mortar shells have been fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel since the outbreak of fighting on Monday evening, according to the IDF. Roughly 200 of the total number of rockets failed to clear the border and landed inside the enclave, the military said. IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said the Iron Dome air defense system had an interception rate of between 85 and 90 percent for rockets heading toward populated areas.

At least six people in Israel were killed — three on Wednesday and three on Tuesday — and dozens more injured in the rocket attacks from Gaza, some seriously, including a 5-year-old girl in critical condition.

A 67-year-old woman suffered a heart attack that was brought on by rocket sirens in central Israel, and in Tel Aviv, an 80-year-old man suffered an apparent heart attack while running for a shelter and was in serious condition, medics said.

An Israeli firefighter walks next to cars hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon, May 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

In response to the rocket attacks from Gaza, the IDF launched Operation Guardian of the Walls on Monday night, some three hours after the rocket attack on Jerusalem, striking Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets in the Strip, as well as senior members of the terror group.

According to the Strip’s Hamas-run health ministry, 53 Palestinians have died since Monday night, including 14 minors, and 320 have been wounded. The IDF said more than half of those killed were members of terror groups involved in the fighting and that some, including several of the children, were killed by errant rockets fired from Gaza that fell short of the border and landed inside the Strip, not by Israeli strikes.

Palestinian terror groups have tied the attacks to the unrest in Jerusalem connected to both prayer on the Temple Mount during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the pending evictions in Sheikh Jarrah.

Israel has fought three large operations against Hamas and other terror groups in the Gaza Strip since 2008, most recently in 2014 with a 51-day war known as Operation Protective Edge.

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