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Netanyahu rebuffs Biden call for immediate Gaza de-escalation

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Josh Wingrove, Jennifer Epstein and Yaacov Benmeleh, Bloomberg
Published 10:25 a.m. ET May 19, 2021 | Updated 12:06 p.m. ET May 19, 2021

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Wednesday that airstrikes in the Gaza Strip would continue, after U.S. President Joe Biden demanded he immediately wind down a conflict that’s killed more than 200 people.

Netanyahu said in a statement from his office that he is “determmined to continue this operation until its goal is achieved – to restore quiet and security to you, the citizens of Israel.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and President Joe Biden (Photo: Sebastian Scheiner, Evan Vucci, AP, File)

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Biden spoke to Netanyahu earlier Wednesday for the fourth time since fresh hostilities broke out between Israel and Hamas last week.

“The president conveyed to the prime minister that he expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a cease-fire,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One.

But in his own statement, Netanyahu did not use the words “cease-fire” or “de-escalation.”

He said the airstrikes were “harming the capabilities of the terrorist organizations.”

“I especially appreciate the support of U.S. President Joe Biden for the State of Israel’s right to self-defense,” he added.

The U.S. president has come under pressure from Democratic congressional allies to push Israel toward a cease-fire in the conflict.

“The United States is working tirelessly through various levels of government to express support for a cease-fire, get to a place of sustainable calm, and build a path forward to addressing the underlying causes of conflict,” Jean-Pierre said.

“The two leaders had a detailed discussion on the state of events in Gaza, the Israelis progress in degrading the capabilities of Hamas and other terrorist elements, and ongoing diplomatic efforts by regional governments and the United States,” she added.

Jean-Pierre declined to say whether Biden had previously pushed Netanyahu on a cease-fire. The president first expressed his public support for the move on Monday.

More Israeli air strikes battered the Palestinian enclave on Wednesday as Hamas continued to fire rockets into Israel. The Palestinian death toll rose to 219, while 12 people in Israel have been killed since fighting broke out May 10.

Egypt has proposed a cease-fire that would start at 6 a.m. Thursday, local time, according to Israel’s Channel 12 TV. The report couldn’t be confirmed, and the Israeli government declined to comment on it. Spokespeople for various Palestinian groups declined to comment or denied the report.

Separately, Al Arabiya said a high-level Egyptian delegation is heading to the West Bank to reaffirm Cairo’s commitment to helping with a cease-fire, citing people it didn’t identify.

Israeli air strikes have pummeled Gaza and killed several Hamas commanders and intelligence officials. Hamas – which governs Gaza and is considered a terrorist group by the U.S., European Union and other nations – has fired more than 3,700 rockets at Israeli territory.

Rockets fired from Lebanon struck Israel for the first time on Wednesday since the fighting began, with one intercepted and three others “most likely” having fallen in open territory, according to the military, which responded with artillery fire.

Two previous launches from Israel’s northern neighbor, home to Iran-backed Hezbollah militants and Palestinian factions, fell short. Even so, the attacks from Lebanon have raised the spectre of another front opening.

Netanyahu said Tuesday that the Israeli operation has set back Palestinian militants “many years” and that other enemies “will learn the lesson” from the heavy price Gaza gunmen have paid. On Wednesday, he told foreign diplomats that Israel can either “deter” or “conquer” Hamas, the Ynet website reported.

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