Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday rebuffed U.S. President Joe Biden’s call for “a significant de-escalation” in Israel’s bombardment of Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip leading to a cease-fire in the 10 days of hostilities.
Instead, Netanyahu said in a statement he is “determined to continue this operation until its aim is met.”
Netanyahu said he “greatly appreciates the support of the American president,” but that Israel will push ahead “to return the calm and security to you, citizens of Israel.”
By late Wednesday, the death toll stood at 227 in Gaza, including 64 children, according to local health officials there, and 12 in Israel, according to its authorities.
Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip exchanged new attacks on each other on Wednesday, despite multiple attempts by regional and international parties to bring about a cease-fire, including Biden’s effort in his fourth conversation with Netanyahu since hostilities broke out last week.
The White House said Biden told the Israeli leader that “he expected a significant de-escalation today on a path to a cease-fire."
The White House declined to say what would happen if Israel continues its bombing attacks on Gaza. "Our approach is to make sure that we do this quietly, intensively, in a diplomatic way,” the White House said.
On Wednesday the Pentagon reported that U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Israeli counterpart, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, for the second straight day. Austin, while affirming Israel's right to defend itself, also "expressed again our deep concern over the loss of innocent lives," according to Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby.
Netanyahu earlier told foreign diplomats, “We are engaged right now in forceful deterrence.”
The Israeli leader pushed back against criticism of the Israeli air campaign, saying his forces are doing their best to avoid civilian casualties. He said Israeli forces try to use “great precision” to respond to attacks, but that they cannot prevent all collateral damage.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rebuked Netanyahu, contending in a television address that Israel is carrying out "organized state terrorism and war crimes" in Gaza that are punishable under international law.
Abbas said the Palestinians "will not hesitate to pursue those who commit such crimes in front of international courts." He is the head of the internationally backed Palestinian Authority, whose forces were driven from Gaza when the militant Hamas group seized power in 2007.
A group of United Nations human rights experts said in a statement Tuesday that Israel’s aerial attacks in heavily populated areas of Gaza “constitute indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks against civilians and civilian property.”
But the rights experts also faulted the Palestinian militants for “deliberately or recklessly” firing rockets into Israel and said the actions of both sides could amount to war crimes.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Tuesday on Twitter there is “immense human suffering and extensive damage to homes and vital infrastructure in Gaza,” and called on the international community to fund U.N. humanitarian programs in the Palestinian enclave.
France has proposed a U.N. Security Council resolution, in coordination with Egypt and Jordan, calling for a halt to the fighting.
"The three countries agreed on three simple elements: The shooting must stop, the time has come for a cease-fire and the UN Security Council must take up the issue," French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said. Macron spoke Tuesday with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
The United States, an Israeli ally that has veto power as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, has so far blocked the council from issuing a statement supporting a cease-fire. U.S. officials have said such a statement would not help diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.
"Our goal is to get to the end of this conflict,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday. “We are going to evaluate day by day what the right approach is. It continues to be that quiet, intensive behind-the-scenes discussion are tactically our approach at this point."
The United Nations said it has been “actively involved” in mediation efforts to try to end the violence. In the meantime, the U.N. said it was able to send dozens of fuel trucks but no other assistance from its relief agency into Gaza.
Thursday, the U.N. General Assembly will convene an urgent session requested by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the group of Arab countries at the United Nations to deliberate on the matter. About a dozen foreign ministers are flying in for the meeting – the first time such a high-level in-person meeting has been held at U.N. headquarters since the start of the coronavirus pandemic more than 14 months ago. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has called for an immediate halt to the hostilities, will also address the special session.
In a video message released Tuesday, Netanyahu said Israel dealt “unexpected blows” to Hamas and set the militant group “back many years.” He said Israel's response to the attacks serves as a lesson to Israel's enemies.
Hamas began firing rockets into Israel on May 10 for what it said were Israeli rights abuses against Palestinians in Jerusalem. Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Israel's 21% Arab minority staged a general strike on Tuesday to protest violence against Arab Israelis and the planned eviction of some Arab families from their homes in East Jerusalem.