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Biden also calls PA's Abbas; Gantz speaks to US counterpart

Netanyahu assures Biden that Israel is seeking to limit Gaza civilian casualties

President backs Israeli self-defense; stresses need for journalists’ safety, after IDF blows up media tower it says also served Hamas; says Palestinians deserve security, freedom

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and US President Joe Biden (R). (Flash90/AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and US President Joe Biden (R). (Flash90/AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with US President Joe Biden on Saturday about the ongoing escalation in violence between Israel and terrorists in the Gaza Strip and said the IDF was doing everything possible to avoid harming civilians, according to an Israeli statement on the call.

Biden, for his part, said he was worried about the safety of journalists in the conflict zone, after Israel demolished a Gaza tower where foreign journalists had offices. The IDF had warned occupants that it was going to demolish the tower, which it said was used as a Hamas intel HQ.

The president also stressed his support for “steps to enable the Palestinian people to enjoy dignity, security, freedom,” as part of a two-state solution.

The conversation, reportedly initiated by Biden, was the second between the two leaders this week.

Netanyahu updated Biden on Israel’s operations in Gaza and the future steps it plans to take there, according to the Israeli statement on the call.

Additionally, Netanyahu thanked Biden for the “unwavering support” of the United States for Israel’s right to defend itself, the statement said.

Police and rescue personnel at the Ramat Gan site hit by a rocket fired by terrorists in the Gaza Strip, May 15, 2021 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Netanyahu “emphasized in the conversation that Israel is doing everything to avoid harming innocent civilians and the proof of this is that in towers where there are terror targets attacked by the IDF, they are given time to evacuate first,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.

A few hours later the White House put out a statement on the call, saying Biden “reaffirmed his strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza. He condemned these indiscriminate attacks against towns and cities across Israel.”

The president also “updated the prime minister on high-level US engagement with regional partners on this issue and discussed ongoing diplomatic efforts. The president noted that this current period of conflict has tragically claimed the lives of Israeli and Palestinian civilians, including children. He raised concerns about the safety and security of journalists and reinforced the need to ensure their protection,” the statement said.

Biden also expressed “grave concern” about the ethnic violence between Jews and Arabs in Israel, according to the White House.

“He welcomed the statements by the prime minister and other leaders opposing such hateful acts and encouraged continued steps to hold violent extremists accountable and to establish calm,” it said.

A firefighter is seen on the streets of the central city of Lod amid ongoing unrest, May 12, 2021 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The statement further said the two leaders discussed tensions in Jerusalem and “their shared desire” for the city “to be a place of peaceful coexistence for people of all faiths and backgrounds.”

Additionally, Biden “voiced his concern” about recent violence in the West Bank. At least nine West Bank Palestinians were killed by Israeli live fire during violent clashes with the Israel Defense Forces on Friday, the Palestinian Authority health ministry said.

“The president voiced his concern about violent confrontations in the West Bank. He expressed his support for steps to enable the Palestinian people to enjoy the dignity, security, freedom, and economic opportunity that they deserve and affirmed his support for a two-state solution,” the statement said, before concluding that the two leaders agreed to continue communication in the coming days.

The PMO announced the call shortly after the White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted that the US has “communicated directly to the Israelis that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility.”

The comments from the Biden administration appeared to be the closest thing to criticism from the US of Israeli actions since the start of the latest round of violence and came shortly after Israel bombed the Gaza building that housed the offices of AP and Al Jazeera, saying it was also being used by Hamas.

Fire and smoke rises from the Jala Tower as it is destroyed in an Israeli airstrike after the IDF warned the occupants to leave, Gaza City, May 15, 2021 (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

After warning occupants to leave, an Israeli airstrike flattened the tower in Gaza City.

The Al Jala building hid “military assets” used by the intelligence wing of the Strip’s Hamas rulers, the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement after the strike.

The IDF accused Hamas of “hiding behind” the offices of the press outlets in the tower and “using them as human shields.”

Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Joe Biden after their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Wednesday, March 10, 2010. (AP/Bernat Armangue)

Biden also spoke with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday in the first phone call between the two since Biden was inaugurated in January.

The US president “expressed his support for steps to enable the Palestinian people to enjoy the dignity, security, freedom, and economic opportunity that they deserve,” according to the White House readout, which said that Biden also noted the recent decisions to restart aid to the Palestinians that was cut off by former president Donald Trump.

Separately, Defense Minister Benny Gantz spoke by phone with his American counterpart Lloyd Austin on Saturday, with the his office saying he thanked the defense secretary for the US administration’s backing of Israel’s right to defend itself.

“Gantz stressed to Austin that Israel is doing everything possible to refrain from harming the uninvolved and its goal is to achieve long-term calm vis-a-vis the [Hamas] terror group which aims to harm population centers,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, walks alongside US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during an honor guard ceremony at Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 11, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni)

The flurry of calls came after 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 Netanyahu was doing enough to prevent an escalation.

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.

Palestinian terrorists in Gaza have fired over 2,300 rockets toward Israel since the outbreak of fighting on Monday, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Ten Israelis, including a young child, have been killed in the rocket fire, and hundreds have been injured. The most recent casualty was on Saturday afternoon when a man was killed by a projectile that struck the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan.

Members of Israeli security and emergency services work on a site hit by a rocket fired from Gaza in Ramat Gan, where an Israeli man was killed, on May 15, 2021. (Oren ZIV / AFP)

In Gaza, the toll from the fighting climbed to 139 on Saturday, including dozens of children, with over 1,000 wounded, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

An Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip overnight Friday-Saturday hit a house in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, killing at least 10 Palestinians, most of them children, Palestinians said.

Israeli military sources, quoted by Israel’s Channel 12 news on Saturday, said “senior Hamas figures” were meeting in the building at the time, and it was “not clear” how many of them were among the dead.

The Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, though Israel says that number is much higher and that dozens of those killed were terrorists. In addition, the IDF says some deaths were caused by errant rockets fired at Israel which fell short of their targets and landed in the Strip.

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