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Biden says he doesn’t think Israel overreacting in response to Gaza rockets

US president says question is how to get Hamas to stop ‘indiscriminate’ attacks; Washington blocks Security Council meeting on issue, where Israel would likely have been criticized

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

US President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with Republican senators in the Oval Office of the White House on May 13, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with Republican senators in the Oval Office of the White House on May 13, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

NEW YORK — US President Joe Biden on Thursday said he did not think Israel has overreacted in its response to rocket fire from Gaza as Washington worked to block the UN Security Council from holding an open meeting on the matter.

“One of the things I’ve seen thus far is that there has not been a significant overreaction [by Israel],” Biden said when asked at a press conference whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was doing enough to prevent an escalation.

“The question is how they get to a point where there is a significant reduction in the attacks, particularly the rocket attacks that are indiscriminately fired into population centers,” he added.

The president noted his “brief” Wednesday phone call with Netanyahu on the matter, adding that various offices in his administration have been in frequent contact with not just the Israelis, but also the Egyptians, the Saudis and others.

During his call with Biden, Netanyahu told the president that Israel would continue striking Hamas, indicating that a ceasefire was not in the cards in the immediate future.

Biden told Netanyahu that he condemns the Hamas rocket attacks and said the US backs Israel’s right to defend itself.

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

Meanwhile, UN Security Council diplomats told The Times of Israel that the US mission had blocked an effort backed by all 14 other members to hold the week’s third emergency session on the escalation in Israel and Gaza. They had hoped for a session on Friday, which unlike the ones on Monday and Wednesday would have been an open meeting.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked about the move at a press conference Thursday, and he said the US supported the idea of an open discussion but said Washington was in talks about holding one early next week.

“This I hope will give some time for diplomacy to have some effect and to see if we get a real de-escalation and can then pursue this in the United Nations in that context,” he added, noting that US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr was en route to Israel for talks with both sides aimed at bringing about a ceasefire.

Israeli soldiers fire toward the Gaza Strip from their position near the southern Israeli city of Sderot on May 13, 2021 (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

An official at the US mission told The Times of Israel that the office had “communicated support for an open meeting in the Security Council early next week in order to give space to diplomatic efforts underway at the highest levels to de-escalate tensions and move toward a ceasefire.”

Hours later, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield tweeted that the session would be held on Sunday.

The US mission had initially been lobbying to hold the meeting next Tuesday, but faced backlash from several missions who said the matter could not wait another five days, two Security Council diplomats said.

On Thursday night, the IDF launched a massive bombardment on a large number of targets in the northern Gaza Strip around midnight, using both ground and air forces, the military said. Netanyahu vowed to exact a “very heavy price” from Hamas, the Gaza-ruling terror group.

Rockets light up the night sky as they are fired towards Israel from Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on May 14, 2021. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

According to the IDF, some 1,750 rockets and mortar shells have been fired toward Israel by terror groups in Gaza since fighting broke out on Monday evening, including 190 projectiles launched between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Thursday. Around 300 of the total projectiles launched landed inside the Palestinian enclave, and in at least one case killed a number of children when the rocket hit a school.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry raised its death toll Thursday to 103 Palestinians, 27 of whom it said were children. Israel maintains that most of those killed in Gaza were terror group members or, in a few cases, died from errant Palestinian rockets.

Meanwhile, seven civilians in Israel have been killed, including a soldier and a 6-year-old boy. An eighth Israeli, an 87-year-old woman, also died after falling running to a bomb shelter upon hearing rocket sirens.

Blinken said Thursday that the US has been “deeply and actively engaged with both sides in an effort to advance de-escalation of violence.” The secretary spoke with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday.

He reiterated the administration’s stance that “there is a fundamental difference between a terror group Hamas indiscriminately targeting civilians and Israel that’s defending itself in going after those attacking it,” but added that the US is “deeply concerned with the loss of life among civilians, especially among children.”

“Palestinians have a right to live in security and peace as Israelis do. We’re working hard to see all sides stand down,” Blinken said.

While the Biden administration has been pushing for a de-escalation, they recognize that a ceasefire in the next couple days is unlikely, according to a source familiar with the matter.

While Blinken spoke with Abbas, there was a recognition on the secretary’s part that the PA president’s influence is limited at this point, given that the rocket fire is coming from his political rival Hamas in Gaza.

The Biden administration has been in touch with Qatar hoping the Gulf kingdom that provides humanitarian aid to Gaza would be able to pressure the terror group into agreeing to a ceasefire, the source said.

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