WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States dispatched a senior diplomat on Wednesday to urge Israelis and Palestinians to calm the worst flare-up in violence between them in years, which has appeared to catch the Biden administration off guard as it pursued other priorities.
In remarks welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended Israel’s right to protect itself and condemned rockets fired by Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip. He also said Israel had a particular obligation to avoid civilian casualties.
Israel said it killed 16 members of the Hamas armed wing in Gaza in a barrage on Wednesday. At least 56 people have been killed in Gaza since violence escalated on Monday, according to the enclave’s health ministry. Six people have been killed in Israel, medical officials said.
The military action follows unrest involving Israeli police and Palestinian protesters near Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem.
Blinken, who spoke by telephone to Netanyahu, said he had sent Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hady Amr to meet with both sides.
“He will urge, on my behalf and on behalf of President (Joe) Biden, a de-escalation of violence.”
Biden has yet to name an ambassador to Israel, a post his predecessor Donald Trump had filled before his inauguration. Other top state department officials handling the region are still awaiting approval from the Senate.
Deflecting suggestions that the long-standing conflict has not been a priority, Blinken repeatedly described the administration as “fully engaged”.
“We are deeply engaged across the board. State Department, White House, senior officials, with the Israelis, Palestinians and other countries and partners in the region to call for and push for de-escalation,” Blinken said.
A senior State Department official, asked if Biden would speak with Netanyahu, said further “high level engagement” from Washington was to be expected.
In his remarks, Blinken drew a distinction between “a terrorist organization, Hamas, that is indiscriminately raining down rockets in fact targeting civilians, and Israel’s response, defending itself.”
However, he added: “I think Israel has an extra burden in trying to do everything they possibly can to avoid civilian casualties, even as it is rightfully responding in defense of the people.”
Netanyahu’s office said: “Prime Minister Netanyahu thanked Blinken for the U.S. support for Israel’s right to self-defense, a right that the secretary of state reiterated in this call.”
(Reporting By Humeyra Pamuk, Doina Chiacu, Simon Lewis and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Peter Graff)