U.S. President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday that he expects to see an immediate significant de-escalation in the Gaza conflict, according to the White House.
According to the White House readout of the two leaders' telephone conversation, "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 president conveyed to the prime minister that he expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire."
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This was the fourth conversation between the two leaders in the past week.
Netanyahu, in a statement issued after a meeting with the military's top brass, said he "really appreciates" the international support Israel was getting from foreign governments.
"I particularly appreciate the support given by the president of our friend, the United States, Joe Biden, for the State of Israel's right to self defense," Netanyahu added.
He also stated he was "determined to carry on with this operation" until "calm and security are restored to Israeli citizens."
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Benny Gantz spoke with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday to brief his American counterpart on developments in Israel's military campaign in Gaza, telling Austin that every day that passes produces new significant military achievements that are significantly degrading Hamas' military capabilities and hitting those indiscriminately launching rockets at Israeli citizens.
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Gantz reportedly told Austin that Israel intended to act responsibly both militarily and diplomatically with moderate forces in the region, and thanked Austin for the support of the United States.
Earlier Wednesday, Israel said it was not setting a timeframe for an end to hostilities with Gaza as its military pounded the Palestinian enclave with air strikes and Hamas militants unleashed new cross-border rocket attacks.
In a sign of diplomatic movement, however, an Egyptian security source said the two sides had agreed to a cease-fire in principle after help from mediators, but details were being negotiated in secret amid public denials of a deal to prevent it from collapsing.
In the early days of the conflict, Biden effectively gave Israeli forces more time to press their offensive against Palestinian militants in Gaza by citing Israel's right to defend itself against a rocket barrage from the Hamas-ruled enclave and not publicly insisting on an immediate ceasefire.
But Biden's latest calls and diplomatic efforts have increasingly been geared toward pressing Netanyahu on a timetable.
In response to Biden's de-escalation call, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said those who sought to restore calm must "compel Israel to end its aggression in Jerusalem and its bombardment of Gaza."
Qassem told Reuters that "if the occupation stopped its aggression against the people of Jerusalem and ended its bombardment on Gaza, there can be room to talk about arrangements to restore calm."
The conditions that Hamas is demanding for a cease-fire, at least as reflected in what it has said to the media, go beyond the situation in the Gaza Strip to the situation in Jerusalem, the heart of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy chief of Hamas' political bureau, who was interviewed this week by several Arab media outlets, placed the status of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and the Al-Aqsa Mosque at the top of the Islamist organization's list of demands.
On Monday of last week, Hamas fired rockets at the Jerusalem area following tensions in the city over an Israeli police raid at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and ongoing legal efforts by a Jewish company to evict Palestinians from land in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood that it claims based on Jewish ownership in the area prior to Israel's independence.
This week Al-Arouri demanded that Israel halt its "aggression" against the Al-Aqsa Mosque and prevent Israeli police and "settlers" from entering. He also demanded that Israel commit not to evict the Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah who are facing the eviction action.
Hamas has also repeated its ultimate demand that the blockade of the Gaza Strip be lifted, that border crossings in an out of the Strip be kept open and that restrictions on the flow of goods over the border between Gaza and Israel be lifted. These are demands that Hamas has made since 2014, when Israel and Hamas fought their last major round of hostilities. Sources in Gaza also expect that Hamas will demand humanitarian assistance to fight the coronavirus pandemic in the Strip.
In another development late Wednesday afternoon, the northern Israeli cities of Acre, Nahariya and Haifa opened public bomb shelter after rockets were fired from Lebanon.
Netanyahu made no mention of any halt to the fighting in public remarks at an earlier briefing to foreign ambassadors to Israel earlier, saying that Israel was engaged in "forceful deterrence" to prevent future conflict with Hamas.
In remarks reported by Israeli media from a closed question-and-answer session, he was quoted as saying: "We're not standing with a stopwatch. We want to achieve the goals of the operation. Previous operations lasted a long time so it is not possible to set a timeframe."
In a 25-minute attack overnight, Israel bombarded targets including what its military said were tunnels in the southern Gaza Strip used by Hamas, the Islamist group that governs Gaza.
Some 50 rockets were fired from Gaza, the Israeli military said, with sirens sounding in the coastal city of Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv, and in areas closer to the Gaza border. There were no reports of injuries or damage overnight but days of rocket fire have unsettled many Israelis.