Biden expresses support for ceasefire in Gaza

Administration had previously refrained from publicly calling for a ceasefire

TOPSHOT - Palestinian children salvage toys from their home at the Al-Jawhara Tower in Gaza City, on May 17, 2021, which was heavily damaged in Israeli airstrikes. / AFP / ANAS BABA
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US President Joe Biden expressed his support on Monday for a ceasefire in the fighting between Israel and Hamas, telling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Washington seeks an end to hostilities.

It is the first time since fighting broke out a week ago that the Biden administration has publicly declared its support for a ceasefire and it has so far blocked all UN efforts to issue a statement on a possible truce.

“The president expressed his support for a ceasefire and discussed US engagement with Egypt and other partners towards that end," the White House said in a readout of the phone call between Mr Biden and Mr Netanyahu.

The move comes amid mounting criticism from the president's own Democratic Party that he is not doing enough to end the conflict.

Mr Biden has been careful to avoid calling Israel out over the deadly violence that has seen at least 200 people killed in Gaza -- including scores of women and children -- and 10 killed in Israel, including a young boy.

Twenty-nine Democratic and independent US senators on Sunday called for an “immediate ceasefire” between Israel and Hamas, and last week 12 Jewish members of Congress made a similar request.

“To prevent any further loss of civilian life and to prevent further escalation of conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories, we urge an immediate ceasefire,” the Senate statement read.

Its signatories include the prominent senators Amy Klobuchar, Tammy Duckworth, Bernie Sanders, Chris Murphy, Tim Kaine and Elizabeth Warren.

In his phone call with Mr Netanyahu, the US president again stated Israel's “right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki earlier pointed to ongoing work "behind the scenes".

“Our approach is through quiet, intensive diplomacy, and that’s where we feel we can be the most effective," she said shortly before Mr Biden's phone call.

Sources familiar with backchannel talks aimed at ending the violence pointed to significant progress in the past 24 hours, but said differences within the Israeli government and ongoing tit-for-tat attacks were derailing this goal.

Egypt and the UN have taken lead roles in the negotiations that could result in a ceasefire this week, the sources said.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan held a second call with his counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat on Monday and with Egypt's Gen Abbas Kamel.

“The United States is engaged in quiet, intensive diplomacy and our efforts will continue,” he said in a statement.

In calls to his Saudi, Qatari and Egyptian counterparts on Sunday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had avoided using the term "ceasefire", instead using softer language such as expressing hopes to "restore calm in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza".

Blinken on Monday spoke with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, the US State Department said. The two discussed the path forward, with Blinken noting that the US would remain engaged with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and other regional stakeholders to bring an end to the hostilities.

At the UN, Washington “has so far blocked days of efforts by China, Norway and Tunisia to get the Security Council to issue a statement, including a call for the cessation of hostilities,” The Associated Press reported.

The draft statement, circulated online, does not condemn Israeli air strikes or rocket fire from Hamas.

Washington last week sent Hady Amr, the US deputy assistant secretary of state, to try to tackle the crisis, and he met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Monday.

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said he had spoken to his American counterpart Lloyd Austin and thanked him and the Biden administration for "rightly preventing the unjust UN Security Council statement criticising Israel's actions in Gaza".
"Our aims are solely to dismantle terror infrastructure and protect our people," Mr Gantz said. "This criticism of Israel is hypocritical and detrimental to the global fight against terror."