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Biden calls for de-escalation’ in Gaza Strip

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A Palestinian protester hurls rocks during confrontations with Israeli troops at the Hawara checkpoint south of the West Bank city of Nablus on Wednesday. AFP

Biden calls for de-escalation’ in Gaza Strip

US President Joe Biden told Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he expects “significant de-escalation” on May 19 in its military confrontation with the Palestinians, amid intense efforts to reach a ceasefire.

Deafening air strikes and rocket fire once more shook Gaza in the conflict that has, since May 10, claimed 227 Palestinian lives according to the Gaza health ministry and killed 12 people in Israel according to Israeli police.

“The president conveyed to the prime minister that he expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire,” the White House said after a fourth phone call in a little over a week.

As diplomatic efforts intensified to stem the bloodshed, Germany said its top diplomat was heading to Israel for talks on May 20.

An Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel was assessing at what stage it may stop its military campaign.

“We are looking at when is the right moment for a ceasefire,” said the source.

Netanyahu earlier issued a tough threat against the Gaza Strip’s Islamist rulers Hamas, who Israel says has fired 4,000 rockets at the Jewish state since May 10.

“You can either conquer them, and that’s always an open possibility, or you can deter them, and we are engaged right now in forceful deterrence,” Netanyahu told foreign ambassadors.

“But I have to say we don’t rule out anything.”

The military source said Israel was evaluating whether its objective of degrading Hamas’s capabilities had been achieved, and “whether Hamas understands the message” that its rocket barrages towards Israel cannot recur.

Among those killed in Israeli bombardment in Gaza on May 19 were a disabled man, his pregnant wife and their three-year-old child, the health ministry in the enclave said.

The family’s living room was blasted to bits, and the mangled parts of a child’s red bicycle lay amid the wreckage.

The US, a key Israel ally, has repeatedly blocked adoption of a joint UN Security Council statement calling for a halt to hostilities.

A UN Security Council meeting broke up without issuing a statement late on May 18, but France then said it had proposed a resolution calling for a ceasefire, in coordination with Egypt and Jordan.

Beijing’s ambassador to the UN, Zhang Jun, told reporters his team had heard the French ceasefire proposal and China was “supportive”.

But the US said on May 19 it would not support the proposed resolution, saying it could undermine efforts to de-escalate the crisis.

“We’ve been clear and consistent that we are focused on intensive diplomatic efforts underway to bring an end to the violence and that we will not support actions that we believe undermine efforts to de-escalate,” a US spokesperson at the UN said.

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin also “urged de-escalation” during a call with his Israeli counterpart on May 19, according to the Pentagon, but also “underscored his continued support for Israel’s right to defend itself”.

German foreign minister Heiko Maas was to meet Israel’s foreign and defence ministers on May 20 and travel to Ramallah to hold talks with the Palestinian premier, his office said.

The Hamas rocket barrages have prompted many living in communities near the Gaza border to hide in bomb shelters virtually around the clock.

Palestinian rocket fire has killed 12 people in Israel, including one child, one Indian and two Thai nationals, and wounded 333, Israeli authorities said.

Israeli air strikes have killed 227 people in Gaza, including 64 children, and wounded 1,620, according to health ministry figures.

Israel’s bombing campaign has also left the two million population in Gaza, under Israeli blockade for 14 years, desperate for relief.

Hospitals have been overwhelmed, and some 72,000 civilians have fled their homes, seeking refuge in UN-run schools and other public buildings, the United Nations says.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on May 19 said that people in both Gaza and Israel “urgently need respite from non-stop hostilities”.

“Today we informed both Israeli and Hamas authorities that as of tomorrow, we would be moving around and stepping-up progressively our response to critical needs,” said Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC director for the Near and Middle East.

“Both parties have a clear legal responsibility to facilitate such action and movements,” he said in a statement.

The latest escalation was sparked after clashes broke out at Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem’s flashpoint al-Aqsa mosque compound, one of Islam’s holiest sites.

This followed violence over the planned evictions of Palestinian families from homes in the eastern sector’s Sheikh Jarrah district.

The conflict has since sparked mob violence between Jews and Israeli Arabs, and sharply heightened tensions in the occupied West Bank.

The Palestinian health ministry said a Palestinian woman was shot dead on May 19 near Hebron, as the army said she had tried to attack Israeli forces.

The death brought to 25 the number of Palestinians killed in the West Bank since May 10.

In northern Israel, the army said it fired artillery shells towards southern Lebanon, in response to four rockets launched at the Jewish state from Lebanese territory, in the third such attack in less than a week.

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