Joe Biden has for the first time publicly expressed his support for a ceasefire as Israeli-Palestinian violence stretched into its second week, ratcheting up US efforts to bring the fighting to an end.
Biden spoke to Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday against a backdrop of rising criticism from American progressives who want his administration to exert more pressure to stop the hostilities in the Gaza Strip.
“The president expressed his support for a ceasefire and discussed US engagement with Egypt and other partners towards that end,” said a White House readout of Biden’s call with Netanyahu.
Biden gave no indication of a timetable and the US has been relying on regional partners to broker a deal. The call came after Netanyahu said late on Sunday that the country would continue its military campaign against the Islamist group Hamas “with full force”, while suggesting that he had US support.
“There is talk about international pressure. There is always pressure but all in all we are receiving very serious backing, first of all from the US,” Netanyahu had said.
On the call, Biden reiterated “his firm support for Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks” and welcomed efforts to address intercommunal violence and bring calm to Jerusalem, according to the readout.
Biden, a Democrat, also “encouraged Israel to make every effort to ensure the protection of innocent civilians”.
As of Monday, Israeli strikes had killed 212 Palestinians, including 61 women and 36 children, according to the Gaza health ministry. Israeli army officials say 130 of the dead are Hamas combatants and disputes Gazan estimates that more than half of the dead are women and children. Israel has reported 10 dead from the Hamas attacks, including two children.
The US earlier on Monday had blocked a UN Security Council statement calling for de-escalation, cessation of violence and respect for international law, according to two UN diplomats, marking the third such time the US has thwarted a statement or softer measures since the violence began.
Israel has drawn condemnation even from pro-Israel Democrats over targeting a building in Gaza that housed international media outlets over the weekend, claiming Hamas — which the US has designated a foreign terrorist organisation — operated from the same building.
Bob Menendez, the leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an Israel supporter, was among those who said he was “deeply troubled” by reports of Israeli military actions that had resulted in the death of innocent civilians in Gaza and targeted the building used by media groups.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken said the US had asked for details justifying the decision to strike the building following the attack, but he had not seen any evidence himself.
Israel was taken aback by Hamas’s rocket fire that overcame Israeli defences last week, and analysts say the country has since been seeking to gain the upper hand and destroy Hamas’s infrastructure. The Israel Defense Forces conducted 1,500 strikes, while the Islamist group has launched more than 3,150 rockets since Monday last week, according to the IDF.
Biden and Netanyahu have promised to keep in direct contact and as of late Monday have spoken three times since last week. The US has also sent Hady Amr, a state department official, to the region.
Dennis Ross, a former Middle East negotiator under both Democratic and Republican administrations, said the readout of the call indicated Biden was trying to bring the crisis to a close.
“It’s a subtle way of [Biden] making the point: OK, you’ve done what you needed to do. Now it’s time to find a way out of this,” he said.