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Gaza: US urges ending violence but falls short of call for ceasefire

'The violence must end immediately,' Secretary of State Tony Blinken says after calls with three Arab counterparts, but issues no explicit demand for ceasefire
Rescuers pull a six-year-old survivor from the rubble of a building at the site of an Israeli air strike, Gaza City, 16 May 2021 (Reuters)
By Ali Harb in Washington

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called three of his Arab counterparts - the foreign ministers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar - on Sunday and urged restoring "calm" and stopping the violence in Gaza, but he stopped short of calling for a ceasefire.

Blinken and President Joe Biden have repeatedly voiced support for what they call "Israel's right to defend itself" over the past days in statements backing the Israeli government while also calling for de-escalation. 

On Sunday, statements describing Biden's calls with Arab diplomats included more direct language in favour of ending the hostilities, without an explicit call for a ceasefire. 

"The secretary reiterated his call on all parties to de-escalate tensions and bring a halt to the violence, which has claimed the lives of Israeli and Palestinian civilians, including children," said a State Department statement, describing the call with Egypt's Sameh Shoukry.

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A tweet by Blinken went even further. "Spoke today with Egyptian Foreign Minister Shoukry to discuss the ongoing violence in Israel, West Bank, and Gaza. All parties need to de-escalate tensions - the violence must end immediately," it said.

The fighting has killed at least 192 Palestinians and 10 Israelis. Washington has unequivocally condemned Hamas for firing rockets towards Israel.

The US administration, however, has failed to denounce Israeli air raids targeting homes and high-rise buildings, which have wiped out entire families and killed dozens of children.

In his call with Qatar's Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, Blinken "discussed efforts to restore calm in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza in light of the tragic loss of civilian life", the State Department said. 

US senators call for ceasefire 

Similar language was used to depict the call between Blinken and Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan. The two "discussed the ongoing efforts to calm tensions in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza and bring the current violence to an end", the State Department said.

"The secretary lamented the loss of Palestinian and Israeli lives and urged engagement to prevent a deepening of the crisis. He also expressed his belief that Palestinians and Israelis deserve equal measures of freedom, dignity, security and prosperity."

'To prevent any further loss of civilian life... we urge an immediate ceasefire'

- 28 Democratic senators

Blinken also spoke to his Pakistani and French counterparts.

Later on Sunday, more than two dozen Democratic Senators urged an "immediate ceasefire" - going further than the State Department's statements.

A brief joint statement signed by 28 senators led by Georgia's Jon Ossoff said: "To prevent any further loss of civilian life and to prevent further escalation of conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories, we urge an immediate ceasefire."

Legislators from across the political spectrum within the Democratic Party added their name to the statement, including former presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar.

Biden's stance

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suggested that the offensive in Gaza will not end anytime soon. On Saturday, he said the war will take "as long as necessary".

Progressive advocacy groups and lawmakers have been frustrated with the Biden administration's stance on the conflict. The US president has been voicing unquestioning support for Israel, and despite Washington's calls for de-escalation, there has been no public pressure on Israel to end its offensive - only condemnations of Hamas.

Even after Israel levelled a 12-storey tower housing the offices of foreign media outlets in Gaza, including the Associated Press, Al Jazeera and Middle East Eye, the administration merely expressed "concern" for the safety of journalists without criticising the attack.

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The UN Security Council met on Sunday to discuss the violence in Gaza but it failed to call for a ceasefire.

Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab Center Washington DC, said the administration has been reluctant to interfere directly in the conflict since the early stages of the current crisis - which was sparked by Israeli efforts to displace Palestinian families from the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

Jahshan said Washington is outsourcing efforts to push for a negotiated ceasefire to its Arab allies.

"The attempt to farm it out is an abdication of responsibility by the administration that claims to be so concerned about security in the region and human rights," Jahshan told MEE. 

He added that the administration's pronouncements in favour of de-escalation and equality between Israelis and Palestinians have not translated into anything solid.

"Their position, I think, lacks credibility," he said.

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