President Joe Biden is considering sending a State Department official to the Middle East to help de-escalate renewed fighting between Israel and Hamas, it was reported Wednesday.
Five Israeli officials and Western diplomats told Axios of Biden's plans as Israel and Hamas were engaged in their most intense fighting in seven years. Action increased overnight when Hamas and other militants fired a second barrage of more than 100 rockets toward Tel Aviv and other nearby cities.
Israel destroyed high-rise buildings, Hamas facilities, and rocket units in the Gaza Strip via a continued air campaign.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been a relatively low priority for the Biden administration. Unlike former President Donald Trump, Biden didn't appoint an envoy for the issue and still hasn't nominated an ambassador to Israel.
Thus, there has been no senior U.S. diplomat on the ground to talk to either Israeli or Palestinian leadership.
The situation, however, now apparently demands more serious attention.
U.S. and Israeli officials told Axios the Biden administration was trying to work with Egypt to push for de-escalation. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli-Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr was expected to travel to Tel Aviv on Wednesday, though Israeli officials said they were waiting on final confirmation.
Amr has been functioning as the de-facto consul general and point of contact to the Palestinians, too.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke to his Egyptian counterpart, Abbas Kamel, on Tuesday. The White House said "steps to restore calm over the coming days" were discussed.
Sullivan also spoke with his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben Shabbat. The White House said Sullivan denounced the Hamas rocket attacks and "conveyed the President's unwavering support for Israel's security and for its legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians."
Axios reported Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke Tuesday with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.
Israeli sources said Blinken didn't push the Israelis to stop the operation in Gaza, but stressed the U.S. wanted to avoid all-out war and civilian casualties in the area.
Egyptian and United Nations mediators have been talking to both sides, with the Israeli government rebuffing efforts calling for a ceasefire, Israeli sources said.
"We're escalating towards a full-scale war. Leaders on all sides have to take the responsibility of de-escalation. The cost of war in Gaza is devastating. Stop the violence now," U.N. envoy Tor Wennesland said Tuesday.
The Israeli security cabinet was expected to convene Wednesday to discuss the Gaza operation. Officials said they wanted to hit Hamas harder as a way to reinforce deterrence before engaging in ceasefire talks.
The U.N. Security Council also was scheduled to convene in a Wednesday morning closed session to discuss the Gaza crisis.
The U.S. was blocking any attempt to issue a joint statement on the situation.
The attacks started following confrontations last weekend at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is the third-holiest site in Islam and the holiest site in Judaism. Over four days, Israeli police fired tear gas and stun grenades at Palestinians in the compound who hurled stones and chairs at the forces.
Hamas then began firing rockets from Gaza on Monday evening.
In the latest assaults, three Israelis were killed and 200 wounded in the barrage of rockets on Tel Aviv. Also, three Israeli soldiers were critically wounded when Hamas fired anti-tank rockets at military vehicles along the border with Gaza.
The Gaza ministry of health said at least 20 Palestinians were killed in the previous 24 hours. That brought the overall death toll to 43 — including at least 15 women and children.
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden had directed his team to "engage intensively" with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
"His team is communicating a clear and consistent message in support of de-escalation and that is our primary focus," she said as reported by CNN. "The President's support for Israel's security, for its legitimate right to defend itself and its people is fundamental and will never waver."
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