Israel-Gaza: US shows support for ceasefire as violence escalates

A Palestinian man inspects the damage of a six-story building which was destroyed by an early morning Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (KEYSTONE / AP Photo / Khalil Hamra)

United States president Joe Biden has for the first time indicated support for a ceasefire between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants as fighting between the two sides enters its second week.

The White House issued a statement on Monday saying President Biden “expressed his support for a ceasefire” during a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, although he stopped short of demanding an immediate end to the devastating violence which has cost the lives of over 200 people.

The call between the two leaders came as Israeli forces stepped up their bombardment of Gaza, where 200 Palestinians, including 60 children, have been killed since the fighting began on Monday 10 May. Israel has said the air strikes came in response to continued rocket fire from Palestinian militant group Hamas into Israel, where 12 people, including two children, have been killed to date.

President Biden’s statement reiterated his “firm support for Israel’s right to defend itself” against rocket attacks by Hamas – a sentiment he has repeatedly stressed since the start of the violence. It also said he “encouraged Israel to make every effort to ensure the protection of innocent civilians”.

Shifting US stance. The words marked a shift in position just days after the US blocked the adoption of a joint UN security council statement calling for an immediate ceasefire for the third time in a week. Speaking at an emergency meeting of the council on Sunday, US envoy to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the country was “working tirelessly through diplomatic channels” to stop the fighting.

The impasse came after UN secretary general António Guterres warned the council that the latest eruption of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is heading for an “uncontainable security and humanitarian crisis”.

“The fighting risks dragging Israelis and Palestinians into a spiral of violence with devastating consequences for both communities and for the entire region,” Guterres told the council. “It has the potential to unleash an uncontainable security and humanitarian crisis and to further foster extremism, not only in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel, but in the region as a whole.”

However, secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Monday that the US would be ready to help if Israel and Hamas signalled interest in ending the violence, although he echoed Biden’s refusal to demand they do so. “Ultimately it is up to the parties to make clear that they want to pursue a cease-fire,” he said.

Also speaking on Monday, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Israel would “continue to strike terror targets” in Gaza “as long as necessary in order to return calm and security to all Israeli citizens”. His words came hours before the Israeli military said it had also shelled areas of southern Lebanon in response to attempted rocket launches into Israel.

Eruption of violence. The latest outbreak of violence between Israel’s military and Hamas erupted after weeks of rising tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, where there has been growing outrage within Palestinian communities at a crack down by Israeli police on public gatherings during Ramadan, and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families living in the Sheikh Jarrah area by Jewish settlers.

Tensions erupted last weekend when police wounded hundreds of Palestinians during protests and officers in riot gear stormed Al-Aqsa mosque – the third holiest site in Islam. Hamas in Gaza began firing rockets towards the city, triggering the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

Humanitarian agencies have repeatedly called for an end to the violence, with particular concern for the number of children reportedly injured and killed and the lack of humanitarian access to Palestinian territories. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 52,000 Palestinians have been displaced by Israeli air strikes that have destroyed or badly damaged nearly 450 buildings in the Gaza Strip.

About 47,000 of those displaced have sought shelter in UN-run schools in Gaza, OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke told a press conference in Geneva on Tuesday. Laerke also said 132 buildings had been destroyed and 316 had been severely damaged, including nine primary healthcare centres and six hospitals. Israel heeded calls from the UN to open a crossing into Gaza to allow in humanitarian goods on Tuesday, however this was closed shortly after following reports of mortar fire.

EU leaders were due to meet on Tuesday for a video meeting to call for a ceasefire, as well as offer more humanitarian aid and attempt to relaunch peace talks between Israel and Hamas. A fourth emergency meeting of the UN security council has not yet been confirmed.