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Biden supports Israel-Gaza ceasefire, as fighting rages into second week

Joe Biden also reiterated that Israel had a right to defend itself, stopping short of publicly calling on Israel to change its approach despite rising international condemnation

By: New York Times |
May 18, 2021 8:48:08 am
A building turned to rubble after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, May 16, 2021. The Israeli bombing in Gaza City killed at least 33 people, including 12 women and eight children, and wounded 50 others, according to Palestinian health authorities. They said the toll was likely to climb as rescuers picked through the rubble searching for victims and survivors. (Samar Abu Elouf/The New York Times)

Written by Isabel Kershner and David E. Sanger

President Joe Biden for the first time expressed support for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza on Monday, as the devastating rocket and missile war there gave no sign of easing after the deaths of dozens of Palestinian children.

But he also reiterated that Israel had a right to defend itself, stopping short of publicly calling on Israel to change its approach despite rising international condemnation.

The statement, issued after Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was the furthest that Biden had gone toward calling for an end to the conflict. But it also reflected a continued and deep reticence by world leaders to criticize Israel, and a failure of diplomacy to persuade the two sides to curb a rising cycle of violence.

For their part, Israel’s leaders have said that they are in no hurry to end the airstrike campaign and have insisted that the military will continue until it reaches its goals of stopping Hamas’ rocket barrages and making the group “pay a price.”


“The directive is to continue striking at the terrorist targets,” Netanyahu said Monday after meeting with Israeli security officials. “We will continue to take whatever action necessary in order to restore quiet and security for all the residents of Israel.”

Over eight days, Hamas has fired nearly as many rockets — 3,350 so far — as it did overall of the 50-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in 2014, and has killed nine civilians in Israel, including two children, and at least one soldier.

But in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian families have paid a much greater price. Since May 10, at least 212 Palestinians had been killed in Gaza, including 61 children, according to health officials there, and many have been left homeless. Gazan officials said that more than 600 homes or businesses had been destroyed and more than 6,400 damaged, and United Nations officials said that at least 800,000 Gazans lack regular access to safe drinking water.

Although civil unrest by Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel had quieted down in recent days, a general strike and demonstrations have been called for Tuesday afternoon to protest Israel’s air campaign in Gaza and other measures targeting Palestinians, organizers said.

In Washington, Biden’s language was carefully couched. It notably avoided a demand that the cease-fire be “immediate,” language that Democratic senators used in a letter to the president earlier in the day.

Israeli forces prepare a vehicle near the Gaza border, May 16, 2021. (Dan Balilty/The New York Times)

It appeared to be an effort to press Israel to suspend its airstrikes — assuming Hamas also ended its barrage of rockets into Israeli cities — despite Netanyahu’s declaration that Israel would keep fighting until it had gravely reduced Hamas’ military capacity, including an extensive network of underground tunnels.

In the statement, the White House made clear that it expected others in the region to play a major role, saying Biden “expressed his support for a cease-fire and discussed U.S. engagement with Egypt and other partners toward that end.”

But he set no deadline and did not appear before cameras to make a public demand — just as he avoided making statements or taking questions during outings this weekend near his home in Delaware.

The Israeli military says it is focusing on airstrikes against the tunnel network because Hamas, which controls Gaza, uses the tunnels to move people, weapons and equipment around the coastal strip undetected. Referring to the subterranean transit system as the “metro,” Israeli officials say the air campaign against the network, which was years in the making, marks a new phase in the long battle between Israel and the militant groups.

Concern over the role of Gaza tunnel networks in attacks against Israelis was a rationale for the military ground invasion of Gaza in 2014, which caused huge loss of life.

A man inspects the damage to a building on Monday, May 17, 2021, in Ashdod, Israel, caused by a rocket fired from Gaza Strip.  (Dan Balilty/New York Times)

Since then, Hamas has greatly expanded that network, according to Israeli intelligence officials. But they say the militants’ focus now is not on passages that reach all the way into Israel, but rather on the creation of shelters for Hamas commanders and fighters within Gaza — from 20 meters beneath the ground to as deep as 70 meters — and a sprawling transportation network for weapons and fighters.

An Israeli air force official, who briefed reporters on Monday on the condition of anonymity, in line with military rules, said that reinforced concrete tunnels ran for hundreds of miles inside Gaza. Israel was not trying to destroy it all, he said, but to create “choke points” that would seal sections off and make parts of the network inoperable.

But above ground, whole structures within Gaza are tumbling down or being scorched and blasted while the airstrikes continue.

At least seven Palestinians were killed in Gaza in Israeli strikes on Monday, officials said, including a man Israeli officials described as an important commander for the militant group Islamic Jihad. At least two civilians were reported killed when one strike hit an office building, Gaza officials said.

On Sunday, intense Israeli bombing made it the deadliest day yet for Palestinians, with at least 42 people killed, including at least 10 children, after an attack on a tunnel network caused three buildings to collapse.

A fire burns at a coffee shop along the beachfront in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, as a result of Israeli bombings on Monday, May 17, 2021 (Samar Abu Elouf/The New York Times)

Netanyahu’s open-ended statements about the need to destroy Hamas’ capability have appeared to put Biden in a corner, which was reflected in the careful wording of the White House statement Monday.

In what amounts to the first Middle East crisis of his presidency, Biden wants to avoid the political risk of appearing to have his appeals ignored. But he also has little leverage over Israel, unless the United States is willing to threaten a cutoff of aid or arms — not politically likely at a moment that Hamas is firing rockets at Israeli citizens.

On Monday, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, told reporters that the administration would not reveal all the details of Biden’s communications with leaders in the conflict. “Our approach is through quiet, intensive diplomacy,” she said. “That is how we feel we can be most effective.”

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