WASHINGTON – In his most forceful statement yet on the Israel-Gaza conflict, President Joe Biden told Israel’s prime minister he expects “a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire,” the White House said on Wednesday.
Biden has been quietly ramping up pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent days to end Israel’s bombardment of Hamas targets in Gaza — amid mounting international alarm over the rising death toll and growing demands from Democrats in Congress for a cease-fire.
The White House said Biden and Netanyahu spoke Wednesday and the two leaders “had a detailed discussion on the state of events in Gaza, Israel’s progress in degrading the capabilities of Hamas and other terrorist elements, and ongoing diplomatic efforts by regional governments and the United States.”
The two men spoke after Israeli widened its strikes on Hamas targets, killing at least six people across the Gaza Strip and destroying the home of an extended family early Wednesday.
Until now, Biden has not given Netanyahu a timeline for Israeli’s military assault on Hamas.
Joost Hiltermann, an expert on the Middle East with the International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organization, said Israel may have achieved as much as it can militarily “without incurring further reputational damage and external pressure.”
The fighting began May 10, when Hamas fired long-range rockets toward Jerusalem after days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a flashpoint site sacred to Jews and Muslims.
In his initial response, Biden repeatedly emphasized Israel’s right to defense itself against Hamas, a militant Islamic group that the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.
But the White House’s rhetoric has shifted amid searing criticism from progressives in Congress urging Biden to step up the pressure on Netanyahu.
During a visit to Michigan on Tuesday, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat and the only Palestinian-American in Congress, challenged the president to address the plight of the Palestinians, who have borne the brunt of the casualties in the conflict.
“Palestinian human rights are not a bargaining chip and must be protected, not negotiated,” Tlaib told Biden, according to her office. “The U.S. cannot continue to give the right-wing Netanyahu government billions each year to commit crimes against Palestinians.”
On Monday, more than two dozen Democratic senators issued a joint statement calling for an immediate cease-fire. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who is staunchly pro-Israel, added her voice on Tuesday.
Calling Israel “our friend and ally,” Pelosi said it is in the U.S. national security interest to support security in Israel. But, she added, “after more than a week of hostilities, it has become even more apparent that a cease-fire is necessary. There must be a serious effort on the part of both parties to end the violence and respect the rights of both the Israeli and Palestinian people.”
International mediators from Egypt and elsewhere have been frantically trying to broker a cease-fire in recent days, even as the violence escalated. The fighting — the worst since a 2014 war between Israel and Hamas — has ignited protests around the world.
At least 219 Palestinians have been killed in airstrikes, including 63 children and 36 women, with 1,530 people wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not break the numbers down into fighters and civilians. Hamas and Islamic Jihad say at least 20 of their fighters have been killed, while Israel says the number is at least 130.
Some 58,000 Palestinians have fled their homes.
Twelve people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and a soldier, have been killed in rocket attacks.
Contributing: Michael Collins, The Associated Press