Biden says working for sustained Israeli-Palestinian calm

US says violence must end immediately; UN envoy said stepping up ceasefire push

Tor Wennesland holding ‘intensive’ talks with Israeli, Hamas and Egyptian officials; Israeli official denies Jerusalem considering truce; Blinken ramps up diplomatic efforts

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (R) meets with United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland on April 26, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz (R) meets with United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland on April 26, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The US on Sunday said all sides in the Israel-Hamas fighting must de-escalate, and the violence “must end immediately.”

The call came as Hebrew media reported United Nations envoy Tor Wennesland has been leading “intensive” talks with Israeli, Hamas and Egyptian officials over the past day in a bid to broker a ceasefire.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s demand for the fighting to end marked a change in the US tone, with the Biden administration stepping up diplomatic efforts in the region, and holding a flurry of talks with regional leaders.

Citing diplomatic sources, a report published on the Walla website and in English on Axios said that Wennesland has been holding “intensive” talks over the past day with National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and other senior Israeli security officials as well as Hamas and Egyptian intelligence officials

“The talks the UN envoy is having with all parties are in an attempt to restore calm in Gaza and Israel and avoid another devastating full-scale war,” the report quoted the official as saying.

Channel 12 also reported on the talks. An unnamed Israeli official confirmed that Ben-Shabbat spoke with Wennesland, but denied Israel was currently considering a truce. “The operation will continue as long as needed,” the official was quoted as saying.

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

Meanwhile, Blinken held talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Shoukry, Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Following his call with Shoukry, Blinken tweeted that “all parties need to deescalate tensions – the violence must end immediately.”

Blinken’s comments appeared to be the first time a senior US official has called for an immediate end to violence.

Also Sunday, US President Joe Biden said his administration is working “toward sustained calm” between Israel and the Palestinians.

In virtual remarks on a pre-taped video played at a White House ceremony to mark Eid al-Fitr at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Biden said: “My administration is going to continue to engage Palestinians and Israelis and other regional partners to work toward sustained calm.”

“We also believe Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live in safety and security and enjoy equal measure of freedom, prosperity and democracy.”

In previous days, the US has emphasized that Israel has the right to defend itself and suggested Israel would be given time to complete operations against Hamas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier Sunday that the fighting in the Gaza Strip — now in its seventh day — would “take more time” and touted the support from the United States and other countries.

Meanwhile, a diplomatic source said a possible ceasefire was not discussed at a meeting of the high-level security cabinet on Sunday.

Two Israeli soldiers walk around an artillery unit, at the Israeli Gaza border, Sunday, May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Heidi Levine)

The source was also quoted by Ynet news predicting that the fighting would end this week. However, Channel 12 news reported on a security source saying the current round of hostilities was nearing its end and that Israel was “entering a critical 24-hour period.”

There was no official comment from authorities on the meeting.

Speaking after the meeting and following consultations with security chiefs, Netanyahu said Operation Guardian of the Walls was “continuing at full strength.” He said over 1,000 targets have been struck in Gaza, exacting a serious toll on Hamas, including their underground assets, which he described as having suffered a serious, but not complete, blow.

“No terrorist is immune,” he threatened during a televised statement at the Kirya military headquarters, noting the IDF has also taken out “terror towers,” referring to high-rise buildings leveled by Israeli airstrikes.

He added that the military was doing what it could to keep civilian casualties to a minimum.

A man walks past the rubble of the Yazegi residential building that was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, Sunday, May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

“This will take time. There is pressure but we are getting serious backing, foremost from the US,” he said. “We have international backing and we are using it.”

Despite Netanyahu suggesting the fighting was not winding down and touting the support of the US, senior Israeli officials told the Walla news site earlier Sunday that the calls by Biden and other major American figures were being heard and that Israel would start moving toward a ceasefire now that a number of military objectives had been achieved against Hamas, as well as in response to the growing international pressure.

The anonymous officials said that as with previous agreements between Israel and the Gaza terror groups, the ceasefire would be mediated by Egypt.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli-Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr arrived in Tel Aviv on Friday and has been holding meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials aimed at reaching a ceasefire.

Member states at the UN Security Council on Sunday also called for an immediate halt to fighting in Gaza between the Israel Defense Forces and the enclave’s Hamas rulers

A streak of light appears as Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepts rockets launched from the Gaza Strip, on May 16, 2021. (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

According to the IDF, Israel has faced the highest ever rate of rocket attacks on its territory during its latest confrontation with Hamas. Since Monday, armed groups in Gaza have fired about 3,000 rockets toward Israel, surpassing the pace during an escalation of violence in 2019 and during the 2006 war with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, said Maj. Gen. Ori Gordin.

The Palestinian toll from the fighting reached 197 on Sunday, including dozens of minors, with over 1,200 wounded, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. 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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