US holds Hamas responsible for Gaza unrest, Israeli official says

Border violence continues during Bennett’s first trip to White House, where he intends to stress his desire to maintain calm, refusal to freeze settlement building

Palestinians carry a demonstrator wounded during clashes with Israeli soldiers along the Gaza border, on Saturday, August 21, 2021. (Credit: Hassan Islayeh)
Palestinians carry a demonstrator wounded during clashes with Israeli soldiers along the Gaza border, on Saturday, August 21, 2021. (Credit: Hassan Islayeh)

WASHINGTON —  As Palestinians clashed with Israeli troops on the Gaza Strip border, an Israeli official said on Wednesday that the Biden administration understands Hamas is responsible for the unrest.

The United States is sending messages to Hamas through all the relevant channels, demanding the terror organization cease its provocations, according to an Israeli official.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is in Washington on his first official visit as premier.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry reported on Wednesday that 14 Palestinians were injured in clashes with Israeli troops along the border, including five from live fire. The ministry said that another two people were wounded by rubber bullets and seven were hurt after inhaling tear gas.

Hamas deployed its so-called restraining force in an apparent effort to keep a lid on protests along the border, with Palestinians in reflective vests deployed to the area.

The military was nevertheless preparing for the possibility that the group will fire rockets toward Israel during Bennett’s visit, according to Channel 12 news.

Meanwhile, a diplomatic source told The Times of Israel Wednesday that Egypt has conveyed stern warnings in recent days to both Israel and Hamas to maintain calm at the Gaza border.

The source believes that the sides internalized the message and that there will not be a significant escalation during Bennett’s ongoing trip in Washington, pointing to Hamas’s deployment of its restraining force to keep demonstrators further away from the fence.

Bennett was set to meet with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday afternoon, and stress to him that his goal is maintaining stability in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israeli soldiers near the Gaza border near Sderot, on August 24, 2021. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Bennett is following the unfolding unrest in Gaza closely while in the US, the Israeli official said.

The official added that Bennett is not interested in holding negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but is working to improve conditions for the Palestinian population.

“In the meeting with the secretary of state, our goal is for the Americans to understand that the prime minister’s approach is one aimed at preserving stability, while avoiding [drastic] steps that alter the status quo,” the official said.

Bennett also not agree to any building freeze in the West Bank, but will also make no moves toward annexation, the official clarified, echoing remarks made by Bennett in an interview with The New York Times a day earlier.

“Israel’s interest is in stabilizing the situation for the Palestinian population,” the official said.

During his Pentagon meeting with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Bennett will discuss arms procurement and Israel Defense Forces force design.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken walks off, after speaking during a briefing at the State Department in Washington, on August 2, 2021. (Brendan Smialowski/Pool via AP)

Despite the unrest on the Gaza border, Bennett and his advisers have stressed that they intend to focus on the Iranian nuclear program during their talks with senior administration officials on Wednesday, and with US President Joe Biden at the White House on Thursday.

However, in their statements ahead of Bennett’s and Biden’s first official meeting, White House officials also mentioned that the two men would discuss issues relating to the Palestinians.

Bennett has spoken out against the possibility of a new nuclear accord between Iran and world powers, and says that any agreement must also put the brakes on Tehran’s regional aggression.

Former US president Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions that have choked Iran’s oil-dependent economy. Iran has responded by walking back measures it had agreed to abide by, including enriching uranium to unprecedented, near weapons-grade, levels.

TV cameras in front of the ‘Grand Hotel Vienna’ where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, on Sunday, June 20, 2021. (AP/Florian Schroetter)

Biden has signaled his readiness to return to the nuclear deal and has engaged in indirect negotiations with Iran, alongside formal talks with the agreement’s remaining parties: Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia.

However, the ascendance of new Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, as well as Iran’s increasing moves away from the deal, have led to pessimism in the West that a return to the accord is possible.

Israel has long opposed the nuclear deal and Biden’s stated intentions to reenter the treaty.

In a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office before his departure, Bennett said that the top priority in his conversation with Biden would be Iran, “especially the leapfrogging in the past two to three years in the Iranian nuclear program.”

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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