Facing increasing pressure from rights advocates and members of his own Democratic Party over Israel’s continued bombardment on Gaza, United States President Joe Biden has conveyed his support for a ceasefire.
In a statement on Monday, the White House said Biden “expressed his support for a ceasefire and discussed US engagement with Egypt and other partners towards that end” in a phone call with Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
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“The President reiterated his firm support for Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks,” the statement read.
A day earlier, Netanyahu had said the Israeli military offensive on Gaza would continue “full force”; Israeli air raids on the Gaza Strip since May 10 have killed more than 212 people, including 61 children, according to Gaza’s Ministry of Health.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been displaced by Israeli bombings, which began on May 10 after rockets were launched from Gaza towards Israel.
Hamas, the Palestinian faction that governs the blockaded Palestinian territory, said the rockets were fired in retaliation for the forced expulsions of Palestinians from occupied East Jerusalem and Israeli attacks on Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Biden “welcomed efforts to address intercommunal violence and to bring calm to Jerusalem” and “encouraged Israel to make every effort to ensure the protection of innocent civilians”, the White House readout of the call with Netanyahu said.
Since the fighting erupted, Biden and his administration’s top officials have publicly supported Israel unequivocally, while insisting that they were working through diplomatic and military channels to try to de-escalate the violence.
But the US for a third time blocked a UN statement condemning Israel for its deadly military offensive in Gaza – drawing widespread criticism.
US Army General Mark Milley warned on Monday of potential destabilisation beyond the Gaza Strip from continued fighting. “It’s in no one’s interest to continue fighting,” Milley told reporters shortly before landing in Brussels for talks with NATO allies, the Reuters news agency reported.
“My assessment is that you risk broader destabilisation, and you risk a whole series of negative consequences if the fighting continues,” Milley said. “De-escalation is a smart course of action at this point for all parties concerned.”
Rami Khouri, from the American University of Beirut, described Biden’s call for a ceasefire “as low intensity as it gets”.
“There’s nothing really more limp than that in terms of putting oomph behind your desire for a ceasefire – so it’s not very serious,” Khouri told Al Jazeera.
“He’s doing it because he’s feeling pressure from Democrats in Congress, he’s feeling the moral outrage of the world, he’s feeling many people around the world are demanding that Palestinians be protected and he sees that the destruction is so disproportionate in Gaza versus anything in Israel that he just felt he had to say something,” said Khouri.
“Hopefully it’s the beginning of a more decisive process behind the scenes but we’ll have to wait and see.”
Jordan’s King Abdullah, in a call with the United Nations’ Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday stressed the “international community must shoulder its responsibility and move effectively to stop the Israeli attacks and avoid their recurrence, as well as stop the aggression on Gaza”, the royal court said in a statement.
Al Jazeera’s John Hendren, reporting from Washington, DC, said Biden had faced criticism from Republicans as well as progressive members of the Democratic Party.
In an emotional speech on the House floor on May 13, Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American, criticised Biden and other top administration officials for failing to acknowledge “Palestinian humanity” amid the Israeli air attacks.
“Those words are stronger than we would have heard in the past,” Hendren said, about recent comments from Tlaib and other progressive Democratic Representatives Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Finally!! Our delay in supporting a ceasefire has caused the slaughter of children and destruction of lives.
Now Biden has to push for an end to the occupation. https://t.co/pfgDoIfpK0
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) May 17, 2021
Meanwhile, a group of 25 Democratic senators signed a public letter to Biden during the weekend calling for an immediate ceasefire.
As the Palestinian death toll continued to rise in Gaza on Monday, Democratic Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer, who has traditionally been a staunch defender of Israel, also called for a ceasefire.
“I want to see a ceasefire reach quickly and mourn the loss of life,” Schumer told reporters at the US Capitol, saying he backed an earlier statement by a leading Senate Democrat and Republican calling for a ceasefire.
“As a result of Hamas’ rocket attacks and Israel’s response, both sides must recognize that too many lives have been lost and must not escalate the conflict further,” read the May 16 statement by Senators Chris Murphy and Todd Young.
Hendren said “what’s striking” is that a majority of Senate Democrats had signed on to the letter encouraging Biden to call for a ceasefire as soon as possible. “That’s an implied criticism from Democrats that he’s not doing enough,” he said.
Phyllis Bennis, the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, said the Biden administration has been following in the footsteps of previous presidents who supported Israel in times of crisis.
“Washington consistently responds to Israeli assaults on Gaza, or Lebanon, with refusing to allow the UN to push for an immediate ceasefire … and sending additional weapons to bolster Israel’s existing US-supplied arsenal,” Bennis told Al Jazeera in an email on Monday.