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Israel-Palestine: US sends diplomat to push for 'de-escalation'

Secretary of State Antony Blinken says he is sending undersecretary Hady Amr to the region, while reiterating support for Israel
Fire billows from Israeli air strikes in the Gaza Strip on 13 May, 2021 as death toll in the besieged enclave continues to climb (AFP)
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The US has announced that senior diplomat Hady Amr will be sent to the Middle East with the aim of de-escalating the violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken also reiterated on Wednesday Washington's support for what he called "Israel's legitimate right to defend itself".

"We're deeply concerned about what we're seeing there. Images that came out overnight are harrowing, and the loss of any civilian life is a tragedy," Blinken said. 

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"I've asked Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hady Amr to go to the region immediately to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He will bring to bear his decades of experience, and in particular, he will urge on my behalf and on behalf of President Biden de-escalation of violence." 

Blinken added that Washington remains committed to the two-state solution, stressing that the recent violence "takes us further away from that goal".

Israeli forces have continued their bombing campaign in Gaza, levelling a 14-storey building to the ground. A day earlier, the Israeli military also bombed a residential tower in the besieged enclave.

Israeli air strikes had killed at least 56 Palestinians, including 14 children, by midday on Wednesday. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad movement have shot hundreds of rockets towards Israel, including the major hub of Tel Aviv, halting flights and killing at least five Israelis. 

An Israeli soldier also died early on Wednesday in a Hamas attack on a military vehicle near Gaza.

Amr's visit

Protests have erupted across Palestinian towns in Israel and in the occupied West Bank. Israeli authorities subsequently announced a curfew in the central city of Lod - home to Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, who refer to it as Lydd - which saw demonstrations and a violent police crackdown on Tuesday.

Israeli security forces stormed al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem for the fourth time on Tuesday night. The crisis was sparked in the holy city earlier this month with Israel pushing to displace Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.

The visit by Amr, who serves as the deputy assistant secretary of state for Israel and Palestinian affairs, will be the first by a Biden administration official focusing on Israel-Palestine.

Biden has not yet appointed an ambassador to Israel, nor a special envoy to tackle the conflict.

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Amr, who was born in Lebanon, is currently the most senior US official dedicated to Israel-Palestine. The itinerary of the trip has not been released; it is not clear whether the American diplomat will visit other countries in the region.

Since the crisis began, Joe Biden's US administration has failed to condemn Israeli actions, including the displacement campaign in Jerusalem that Palestine solidarity activists say amounts to ethnic cleansing.

Moreover, Washington has not criticised the killing of Palestinian civilians or the targeting of civilian infrastructure in Gaza.

US officials have, however, repeatedly expressed "concern" about moves by Israel while unequivocally denouncing Hamas and other Palestinian groups.

"We fully support Israel's legitimate right to defend itself. We've condemned, and I condemn again the rocket attacks in the strongest possible terms," Blinken said on Wednesday. 

"We believe Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live with safety and security, and we'll continue to engage with Israelis, Palestinians and other regional partners to urge de-escalation and to bring calm."

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin reiterated the same message in a phone call with his Israeli counterpart, Benny Gantz, according to a statement from the Pentagon.

"Secretary Austin conveyed the Department’s ironclad support for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people, and he strongly condemned the launching of rockets by Hamas and other terrorist groups that targeted Israeli civilians," Austin said. 

"He reiterated the importance of all involved parties to take steps to restore calm."

Pelosi backs Israel

Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives and the top legislative leader from Biden's Democratic Party, stuck with the administration's line of uncritical support for Israel in a statement on Tuesday.

"I condemn the escalating and indiscriminate rocket attacks by Hamas against Israel. Israel has the right to defend herself against this assault, which is designed to sow terror and undermine prospects for peace," Pelosi said.

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Although footage of Israeli air strikes targeting residential buildings with no overt sign of any military presence in Gaza have been circulating online, the US House speaker blamed Hamas for the deaths of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli military.

"Every civilian death is a tragedy that we mourn. Hamas’s accelerating violence only risks killing more civilians, including innocent Palestinians," she said.

Progressives in Congress continued to criticise Israeli policy this week, highlighting the divide within the Democratic Party on the issue.

"This is happening on our dime," Congresswoman Ilhan Omar wrote in a tweet commenting on the mounting Palestinian death toll. "President Biden needs to step in and deescalate to stop the carnage." 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday that the administration was intensifying diplomatic efforts - in private - to bring an end to the crisis.

She said the administration had conducted more than 25 high level calls with Israelis, Palestinians and various Arab states.

"Our objective here is de-escalation, as we look to protecting the people in the region," Psaki said.