In a call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, US President Joe Biden said Israel has a right to defend itself but also that he hopes violent clashes with Palestinians will end quickly.
The two leaders spoke as the Hamas terror group has fired some 1,500 rockets and mortar shells indiscriminately at the Israeli homefront since Monday evening, and Israel has responded with hundreds of airstrikes on targets including Hamas infrastructure, rocket crews and individual commanders.
“I had a conversation with Bibi Netanyahu not too long ago,” Biden told reporters shortly after the call, using the prime minister’s nickname. “My expectation and hope is that this will be closing down sooner than later, but Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory.”
Biden said US diplomacy was in high gear with national security and defense staff “in constant contact with their counterparts in the Middle East — not just with the Israelis, but also with everyone from the Egyptians and the Saudis to the Emiratis.”
The White House said that during his call with Netanyahu, Biden “condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas and other terrorist groups, including against Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He conveyed his unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians.”
According to a readout from Netanyahu’s office, the premier thanked Biden for backing Israel’s right to defend itself.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Israel would continue to act to undermine the military capabilities of Hamas and other terrorist organizations operating in the Gaza Strip,” the readout said, indicating that Israel was not yet interested in a ceasefire.
Earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that Hady Amr, the State Department official in charge of Israeli and Palestinian affairs, was leaving Wednesday to the region to urge “de-escalation of violence.”
Blinken also talked with Netanyahu, again pushing for both sides to step back from fighting. He “reiterated his call on all parties to de-escalate tensions and bring a halt to the violence,” according to a White House readout.
Later in the day, the secretary of state phoned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to express his condolences over Palestinian lives lost in the fighting, condemn the Gaza rocket fire and “emphasize the need to de-escalate tensions and bring the current violence to an end,” according to a State Department readout.
Blinken is the most senior US official to speak with Abbas since Biden entered office. The US delivered a letter to Abbas on Monday from Biden that was written prior to the latest round of violence, but the president has yet to speak to his Palestinian counterpart.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had called his Israeli counterpart, Benny Gantz, and backed Israel’s “legitimate right to defend itself and its people” while also urging steps to restore calm. It was the first call between the two defense chiefs since the escalation broke out.
Blinken at an earlier press conference described scenes of dead Palestinian civilians, including children, as “harrowing” but defended Israel’s response to the rocket fire.
“I think Israel has an extra burden in trying to do everything they possibly can to avoid civilian casualties, even as it is rightfully responding in defense of its people,” Blinken said.
But the diplomat said there was 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.”
Biden’s administration earlier in the week appealed to ally Israel to reroute a flashpoint parade in Jerusalem and prevent evictions of Palestinians in the holy city, the immediate trigger for the new round of violence. The parade was rerouted, and a court hearing on the evictions delayed.
Taking more nuance after the firmly pro-Israel administration of Donald Trump, Blinken renewed US support for the eventual creation of an independent Palestinian state.
“This violence takes us further away from that goal,” Blinken said.
“We believe Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live with safety and security and will continue to engage with Israelis, Palestinians and other regional partners to urge de-escalation and to bring calm.”