President Joe Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday, pressing him to protect civilians in Gaza while stopping short of demanding an immediate ceasefire amid fierce fighting between Israel and Hamas militants.
Biden Urges Restraint But Affirms Israel’s Right to Defend Itself
In the 30 minute phone call, Biden affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas rocket attacks but urged Netanyahu to take greater care to avoid civilian casualties. According to the White House, Biden expressed support for a UN Security Council statement that called for a ceasefire but did not demand one.
Biden “encouraged Israel to make every effort to ensure the protection of innocent civilians,” the White House said in a statement. He also discussed with Netanyahu the ongoing military operations in Gaza, including Israel’s strikes on the tunnels used by Hamas.
However, Biden notably did not join calls from fellow Democrats and some allies for an immediate ceasefire. When asked if Biden pushed for a ceasefire, a White House spokeswoman said “he did not.”
Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Herzog, said Biden gave “unequivocal support” to Israel and “didn’t preach” to Netanyahu despite the civilian deaths in Gaza.
Gaza Death Toll Passes 200 in 24 Hours
The high-stakes phone call came as fighting intensified in Gaza, pushing the death toll past 200 in just 24 hours according to Hamas authorities. The UN warns conditions in Gaza are deteriorating rapidly, calling the situation “appalling”.
Israel continues to pummel Gaza with artillery fire and air strikes as it tries to destroy Hamas’ tunnel network. Hamas has fired barrages of rockets at Israeli cities in the fiercest hostilities in years.
While Biden affirmed Israel’s right to self defense, he noted civilian casualties were likely to increase further without a ceasefire soon. A White House statement said he and Netanyahu discussed ways to address the humanitarian situation in Gaza while meeting Israel’s security needs.
|Death Toll Timeline
|145 killed in Gaza
Netanyahu Vows to Continue Strikes to “Completely Silence” Hamas
In a nationally televised address after his call with Biden, Netanyahu said Israel is “still in the midst of this operation, it is still not over and this operation will continue as long as necessary.”
He thanked Biden for “unequivocal support” in the UN Security Council and said Israel will do “everything to return the calm and security to you, citizens of Israel.”
Defense Minister Benny Gantz meanwhile said strikes against Hamas would continue until “complete and long-term quiet” was achieved. He said the operation had already killed dozens of Hamas operatives and damaged infrastructure.
International Pressure Mounts for Ceasefire
Internationally, France, Egypt and Jordan have pushed for an immediate ceasefire deal to end the fighting as unrest spreads across the occupied territories. Protests erupted again late Saturday in the occupied West Bank, prompting Israeli forces to fire stun grenades and tear gas.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned the current hostilities were “utterly appalling” and called for an immediate end to the fighting. The UN Security Council has met three times over the crisis but failed to agree a joint statement due to opposition from the United States.
As international pressure for a ceasefire ramps up, much will depend on the US position as Israel’s closest ally. While Biden has defended Israel’s right to strike Hamas, Washington may find it harder to resist calls for a bombing halt as the death toll rises.
So far Egypt and Qatar’s attempts to broker a temporary truce have stalled as both sides balk at compromise. Hamas insists Israel must first halt evictions and police actions in Jerusalem and address damages from Gaza fighting before it agrees to lay down arms.
What’s Next: Possibility of Israeli Ground Invasion
As the death toll spirals, there are concerns Netanyahu may order troops into Gaza to quell rocket fire in a risky ground invasion likely to cause heavy casualties.
So far Israel has refrained from a ground offensive fearing the high cost, instead opting to bombard tunnels and suspected Hamas compounds from the air. However the longer the crisis drags on, pressure for a ceasefire solution will grow.
Israel is currently focused on crippling Hamas’ military capabilities in Gaza. But if Hamas continues heavy rocket barrages past the point of diminishing returns, Israel may launch a ground offensive regardless of international condemnation. The UN warns a ground war may unleash “uncontainable crisis” in Gaza which lacks infrastructure to handle mass military and civilian casualties.
Much could depend on mediation attempts by Egypt, Qatar and the United States to deescalate tensions in coming days. However with both sides locked into maximalist positions and brushing off calls for calm, the Gaza conflict threatens to become adrawn-out war of attrition unless underlying issues are addressed. For now the crisis shows no signs of abating as the death toll spirals.
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