US: Israel has right to respond to rockets, Palestinians have right to safety

State Department spokesman insists Washington has not disengaged from Mideast conflict, calls Hamas conduct ‘horrific’ and urges both sides to restore calm

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US State Department spokesman Ned Price takes questions from reporters at the State Department in Washington on March 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, Pool)
US State Department spokesman Ned Price takes questions from reporters at the State Department in Washington on March 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, Pool)

The Biden administration on Tuesday said Israel had a right to respond to rocket attacks from Gaza, while adding that Palestinians also have a right to security.

During a daily press conference at the US State Department, spokesman Ned Price reiterated Washington’s grave concern over the ongoing escalation of violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip and called on Israelis and Palestinians to exercise restraint in order to bring a return to calm.

“Israel has the right to defend itself and to respond to rocket attacks,” he said in prepared remarks opening the briefing. “The Palestinian people also have the right to safety and security just as Israelis do.”

Price lamented the loss of life to both sides, highlighting the children and innocent civilians who have been among the casualties.

He also expressed concern regarding reports that hundreds of Palestinians were injured in clashes with Israeli police in Jerusalem, noting that officers were also wounded.

Israeli security forces stand by extinguished burnt vehicles in Holon near Tel Aviv, on May 11, 2021, after rockets from the Gaza Strip hit central Israel (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

The State Department spokesman revealed that senior US officials have been in contact with their Israeli counterparts in recent days regarding the ongoing escalation in Jerusalem and Gaza.

In the last 24 hours, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke with Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz and White House National Security Adviser spoke with National Security Council chairman Meir Ben-Shabbat.

It was the second conversation between the latter pair in just over 48 hours.

Sullivan conveyed US President Joe Biden’s “unwavering support for Israel’s security and for its legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians,” according to a White House readout, which appeared to reference growing American concern over the number of Palestinian casualties in Israeli counter-strikes.

The US national security adviser also held talks Tuesday with officials in Cairo who have been involved in mediating between Israel and Hamas in an effort to reach a ceasefire.

A State Department readout on the Blinken-Ashkenazi call highlighted many of the same messages, while also including US concern over the recent violence in Jerusalem surrounding the Temple Mount compound and the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood where dozens of Palestinian families are under threat of eviction to be replaced by ultranationalist Jews. Unlike previous US statements on the matter, this one did not include a specific condemnation of the planned evictions.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, listens as National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, right, talks to the media in Anchorage, Alaska on March 19, 2021. (Frederic J. Brown/Pool via AP)

Blinken emphasized the need for Israelis and Palestinians to be able to live in safety and security, as well as enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and democracy,” the readout stated.

Speaking of the close contact between Israeli and US officials, Price at the briefing said, “We’ll always have a partner in the Israeli government.

The State Department spokesman said US officials have also been speaking to their Palestinian counterparts, but did not identify the Palestinian officials, despite repeated requests. Asked at what level those talks with Palestinian officials have been, Price responded, “at the appropriate level,” hinting that the calls with Israeli officials have been between higher-ranking officials than those with Palestinian officials.

The spokesman clarified that the US has not been in contact with Hamas, which Washington designates as a terror organization.

However, a senior US diplomat hand-delivered a letter from President Biden to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday, a White House National Security Council spokesperson told The Times of Israel, confirming what appeared to be the first correspondence the American leader has had with his Palestinian counterpart since taking office almost four months ago.

“Earlier this year, President Abbas sent a letter congratulating President Biden on the election. Palestinian Affairs Unit Chief George Noll delivered President Biden’s response,” the spokesman says, declining to reveal the contents of the letter, which appeared to have been drafted prior to the recent escalation of violence in Israel and Gaza.

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

The official PA news agency WAFA said the letter dealt with “the latest political developments, the current situation and bilateral relations between the United States and the State of Palestine.”

“This is part of this administration’s ongoing outreach with the Palestinian leadership on a range of issues of mutual interest, including ongoing efforts to de-escalate violence and restore calm,” the National Security Council spokesperson said.

Abbas reportedly rejected a call from Blinken in February, demanding that the new US administration’s first call come directly from the Oval Office, as is more common.

Meanwhile, Biden has spoken twice with Netanyahu — once after Biden’s election victory in November, and again several weeks after he entered the White House in February. The second call — four weeks after Biden’s inauguration — was widely covered by media in Israel and abroad, which noted that Netanyahu was not among the first world leaders to hear from the new American leader.

A source familiar with the matter said Tuesday that a Biden phone call to Netanyahu was “in the cards” if the situation in Israel and Gaza continued to escalate.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to US President Joe Biden on February 17, 2021. (Prime Minister’s Office)

Price at the briefing highlighted the “encouraging steps” taken in recent days by leadership from both sides, including the Israeli decisions to reroute the Jerusalem Day Flag Parade away from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter and to delay a hearing on the looming eviction of four Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah. He also praised President Abbas’s decision to cancel Ramadan celebrations in the West Bank on Monday night.

The spokesman was later pressed on whether he had seen photos of the Palestinian children killed in Gaza, reportedly in Israeli airstrikes.

“I’ve seen those pictures. It’s hard not to look at those pictures and feel a sense of the suffering,” he said solemnly. “It’s precisely why today we have called for restraint and de-escalation in an effort to preserve life.”

He also called Hamas rocket attacks “horrific.”

Price dismissed claims that the United States has “failed to prioritize” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A woman was killed after a rocket impacted her home in Ashkelon, on May 11, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

That is not the case,” he said, arguing that the US and other countries have “recognized” that the two sides are not in a position to enter meaningful negotiations toward a two-state solution.

“If there’s an opportunity to advance that ball toward a two-state solution,” the US would help facilitate that effort, he said.

“It is not that we haven’t been paying attention. We’ve been deeply engaged, and that predates the current escalation,” Price said.

The spokesman avoided responding to a question regarding whether the US will appoint a special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as previous administrations have done and did not state when the US will appoint an ambassador to Israel.

“The United States is doing what we can, knowing that we don’t – our ability in certain situations is going to be in some cases limited,” Price said.

Palestinian terror groups in Gaza have fired hundreds of rockets at Israel, including at Jerusalem, the capital, and Tel Aviv on Monday and Tuesday. On Tuesday, three women were killed and dozens of people were injured, including several seriously by rocket fire on southern and central Israel.

An Israeli firefighter walks next to cars hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon, May 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

In response to the rocket attacks from Gaza, the IDF launched Operation Guardian of the Walls on Monday night, some three hours after the attack on Jerusalem, striking Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets in the Strip, as well as members of the terror group. According to the military, a number of high-level commanders in the groups have been targeted, including the head of PIJ’s rocket unit in the northern Gaza Strip and the brother of its former top commander, who was killed in an Israeli strike in November 2019, sparking a large conflict.

According to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry, 28 Gazans have been killed in the fighting, including nine minors, and 125 wounded in the ongoing escalation with Israel. Fifteen Gazans sustained serious injuries, according to Hamas health ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra. Israel said more than half were Hamas fighters and that some of those killed, including at least three of the children, were struck by errant rockets fired by Palestinian terrorists, not Israeli strikes.

Palestinian terror groups have tied the attacks to the unrest in Jerusalem connected to both prayer on the Temple Mount during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the pending evictions in Sheikh Jarrah.

Israel has fought three large operations against Hamas and other terror groups in the Gaza Strip since 2008, most recently in 2014 with a 51-day war known as Operation Protective Edge.

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