US President Joe Biden has expressed support for a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers in a call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But Mr Biden stopped short of demanding an immediate stop to the eight days of Israeli air strikes and Hamas rocket barrages that have killed more than 200 people, most of them Palestinian.
Mr Biden’s carefully worded statement from the White House of his second known call to Mr Netanyahu in three days, came with the administration under pressure to respond more forcefully despite its determination to steer US foreign policy focus away from Middle East conflicts.
Mr Biden’s comments on a ceasefire were open-ended and similar to previous administration statements of support in principle for a ceasefire. That is in contrast to demands from dozens of Democratic members of Congress and others for an immediate halt by both sides.
But the call to the Israeli leader showed increased White House concern about the air and rocket attacks – including Israeli air strikes aimed at weakening Hamas – while sticking to forceful support for Israel.
The US leader “encouraged Israel to make every effort to ensure the protection of innocent civilians”, the White House said.
An administration official familiar with the call said the decision to express support and not explicitly demand a ceasefire was intentional. While Mr Biden and top aides are concerned about the mounting bloodshed and loss of innocent life, the decision not to demand an immediate halt to hostilities reflects White House determination to support Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas, the official said.
Mr Netanyahu has told Israeli security officials that Israel would “continue to strike terror targets” in Gaza “as long as necessary in order to return calm and security to all Israeli citizens”.
As the worst Israeli-Palestinian fighting since 2014 raged, the Biden administration has limited its public criticisms to Hamas and has declined to send a top-level envoy to the region.
It had also declined to press Israel publicly and directly to wind down its latest military operation in the Gaza Strip, which is home to more than 2 million people. Ceasefire mediation by Egypt and others has shown no sign of progress.
Separately, the United States, Israel’s top ally, has blocked for a third time what would have been a unanimous statement by the 15-nation UN Security Council expressing “grave concern” over the intensifying Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the loss of civilian lives. The final US rejection killed the Security Council statement, at least for now.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki and national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the United States was focusing instead on “quiet, intensive diplomacy”.