Biden: Israel has right to defend itself from Gaza rocket terrorism
By LAHAV HARKOV, TOVAH LAZAROFF, OMRI NAHMIAS
US President Joe Biden sounded an optimistic tone on Wednesday about violence between Israelis and Palestinians concluding soon after he had a phone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"My expectation and hope is this will be closing down sooner than later, but Israel has a right to defend itself," Biden told reporters at the White House.
According to a White House readout of the call, the President "condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas and other terrorist groups, including against Jerusalem and Tel Aviv."
"He conveyed his unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians," the statement reads
Biden also conveyed the United States’ "encouragement of a pathway toward restoring a sustainable calm," the White House said. "He shared his conviction that Jerusalem, a city of such importance to people of faith from around the world, must be a place of peace."
Biden also provided Netanyahu an update about the United States’ discussions with Egypt, Jordan, and Qatar, and PA officials.
"The two leaders agreed to maintain the close consultation between their teams, which has included consistent engagement by their respective foreign ministers, defense ministers, chiefs of defense, and national security advisors, and to stay in touch personally in the days ahead," the statement reads.
Meanwhile. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized his country’s support for Israel in its fight against Hamas, in a press briefing on Wednesday, amid the most intense round of fighting between the parties since 2014.
“To be very clear, we strongly condemn the rocket attacks out of Gaza that are targeting innocent Israeli civilians, and Israel has a right to defend itself,” Blinken said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Blinken on the phone on Wednesday and thanked him for US support for Israel's right to self-defense, a right that the Secretary of State reiterated in the conversation.
Responding to a journalist comparing the higher civilian casualty rate among Palestinians to Israelis, Blinken said: “There is a very clear and absolute distinction between the terrorist organization Hamas that is indiscriminately raining down rockets targeting civilians, and Israel’s response defending itself, targeting the terrorists raining down rockets on Israel.”
Still, the secretary of state added, “Whenever we see civilian casualties, and particularly when we see children caught in the crossfire losing their lives, that has a powerful impact, and I think Israel has an extra burden in trying to do everything it possibly can to avoid civilian casualties, even as it is rightfully responding in defense of its people.”
Blinken repeatedly emphasized that “the single most important thing now is de-escalation.”
In that vein, Blinken announced that he was dispatching Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israel and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr to Israel.
Amr planned to visit the region next week, and moved his trip up in light of the escalation. The US diplomat is expected to try to bolster Egypt in mediating an Israel-Hamas ceasefire, though Cairo has pulled back from those efforts somewhat, due to lack of interest. Amr is expected to meet with his counterparts in Israel’s Foreign Ministry, but not with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. He cannot engage with Hamas directly, under US law which designates it as a terrorist organization.
Blinken said the US is “deeply engaged across the board,” noting that he spoke with Ashkenazi, and that US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke with his counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat.
“Palestinians also have a right to live in safety and security, and the most important thing going forward now is to take down the violence and de-escalate. That’s exactly what we’re working toward,” Blinken said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Blinken soon after, thanking him for supporting Israel’s right to defend itself.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with Defense Minister Benny Gantz and “conveyed the [Defense] Department’s ironclad support for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people,” according to a Defense Department readout.
Austin “strongly condemned the launching of rockets by Hamas and other terrorist groups that targeted Israeli civilians. He reiterated the importance of all involved parties to take steps to restore calm.”
I spoke with @IsraeliPM today about the ongoing situation in Israel including rocket fire emanating from the Gaza Strip targeting Israeli civilians. Israel has the right to defend itself. Palestinians need to be able to live in safety and security. It’s vital now to deescalate.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) May 12, 2021
Meanwhile, US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield continued to stop the Security Council from issuing a statement condemning Israel, which would have required a consensus from its members.
The 15-member body held its second closed-door meeting this week on the latest wave of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Washington blocked Security Council efforts to issue a public statement, fearing that it could be harmful to behind-the-scenes efforts to end the violence, according to diplomats and a source familiar with the US strategy.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source said Washington is “actively engaged in diplomacy behind the scenes with all parties to achieve a ceasefire” and was concerned that a council statement might be counterproductive at the moment.
That statement would have expressed concern over the Jerusalem violence, called on Israel to cease Jewish settlement activities, demolitions and evictions while urging general restraint.
Officials from individual member states, including China, which holds the UNSC presidency this month, issued statements calling on both Israelis and Palestinians to de-escalate the situation.
Five permanent UNSC members have veto power: the US, China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom.
The European members of the Security Council expressed “grave concern” about violence in and around Gaza and Jerusalem, as well as the West Bank, though it has been relatively quiet.
“We condemn the firing of rockets from Gaza against civilian populations in Israel which is totally unacceptable and must stop immediately,” Estonian Ambassador Sven Jurgenson said in the name of his country, France, Ireland and Norway. “The large numbers of civilian casualties, including children, from Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, and of Israeli fatalities from rockets launched from Gaza, are both worrying and unacceptable.”
Jurgenson also called for leaders to “refrain from provocation and incitement” around the Temple Mount and respect the status quo, and for Israel to “cease settlement activities, demolitions and evictions, including in east Jerusalem.”
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh called on the UNSC to take serious steps to halt Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip and its attacks against Palestinians in Jerusalem, including in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as Al-Haram Al-Sharif.
China’s special envoy on the Middle East, Zhai Jun, on Wednesday expressed “deep concern” over escalating clashes between Palestinians and Israel and urged all parties to exercise restraint to avoid further casualties.
In a meeting with Arab envoys and the chief representative of the Arab League in China, Zhai said Beijing would continue to push the UNSC to take action on the situation in east Jerusalem as soon as possible, according to a Foreign Ministry statement.
The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell called for an end to the escalation between Israel and the Palestinians.
“The EU is dismayed at the large numbers of civilian deaths and injuries, including children,” Borrell said. “The priority must be to protect civilians... The indiscriminate launching of rockets from Hamas and other groups towards Israeli civilians is unacceptable.”
Borrell said he recognizes Israel’s “legitimate need to protect its civilian population,” but said it must in its response be “proportionate and with maximum restraint.”
He also called to respect the status quo and freedom of worship in Jerusalem’s holy sites.
Also Wednesday, over 40 members of the European Parliament from 17 countries signed a letter expressing “unwavering and steadfast support for the State of Israel.”
“The Jewish State – our key democratic ally – has, like all sovereign states, not only the right, but the duty to defend its citizens against terror and rockets.”
“We mourn all victims, both Israelis and Palestinians. But now as ever is the time for moral clarity. We must clearly condemn Hamas and Islamic Jihad... for the deaths and devastation in Israel and in Gaza,” reads the letter circulated by the American Jewish Committee’s Brussels-based Transatlantic Institute.