Netanyahu Brushes Off Biden’s Call for “Significant De-Escalation in Fight

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday briefed over 70 foreign ambassadors and diplomatic representatives at the Kirya in Tel Aviv, together with Foreign Minister Gaby Ashkenazi. He said he is “determined to continue this operation until its aim is met.” Photo Credit: GPO

Edited by: Fern Sidman

President Joe Biden on Wednesday greatly increased the pressure on Israel to end the war with the Palestinians that has killed more than 200 people, telling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a telephone call that he expected “significant de-escalation” by day’s end, as was reported by the AP.

Biden asked Netanyahu to move “toward the path to a cease-fire,” according to a White House description of their conversation.

A man and his dogs take shelter in the stairwell of his apartment building as a siren sounds a warning of incoming rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, In Ashdod, Israel, Wednesday, May 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Heidi Levine)

Biden’s call came as political and international pressure mounts on him to intervene more forcefully to push an end to the hostilities. Biden, until Wednesday, had avoided pressing Israel more directly and publicly for a cease-fire, or conveyed that level of urgency for ending Israeli airstrikes targeting Hamas in the thickly populated Gaza Strip, according to the AP report.

His administration had relied instead on what officials described as “quiet, intensive” diplomacy, including quashing a U.N. Security Council statement that would have addressed a cease-fire. The administration’s handling opened a divide between Biden and Democratic lawmakers, dozens of whom have called for a cease-fire.

AP reported that Netanyahu vowed to press ahead with a fierce military offensive in the Gaza Strip, pushing back against calls from the United States to wind down the operation. Netanyahu’s tough comments marked the first public rift between the two close allies since the fighting began last week and could complicate international efforts to reach a cease-fire.

Mourners attend the funeral of Yigal Yehoshua, 56, at a cemetery in Hadid, central Israel, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Yehoshua died of wounds sustained when his car was pelted with rocks during Israeli Arab riots in the Israeli city of Lod on May 11. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Israel continued to pound targets in Gaza with airstrikes Wednesday, while Palestinian militants bombarded Israel with rocket fire throughout the day. In another sign of potential escalation, militants in Lebanon fired a barrage of rockets into northern Israel, as was reported by the AP.

The rocket attack, which drew Israeli artillery fire in response but did not cause any injuries, raised the possibility of dragging Israel into renewed conflict with the powerful Lebanese militant group Hezbollah to its north.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, and Hezbollah, which fought a month long war against Israel in 2006, has stayed out of the fighting for now. AP reported that the rockets are widely believed to be fired by Palestinian factions based in south Lebanon.

But they cannot operate without Hezbollah’s tacit consent, and the barrage appears to be carefully calibrated to send a political message that the group, which has tens of thousands of missiles, could join the battle at any time. Israel considers Hezbollah to be its most formidable threat, and has threatened widespread destruction in Lebanon if war were to erupt, according to the AP report.

Israeli firefighters arrive at kibbutz in south Israel hit by rocket fire from Gaza that killed two Thai workers inside a packaging plant in southern Israel , Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Since the fighting began last week, the Israeli military has launched hundreds of airstrikes it says are targeting Hamas’ militant infrastructure, while Palestinian militants have fired thousands of rockets into Israel. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

After a visit to military headquarters, Netanyahu said he “greatly appreciates the support of the American president,” but said Israel will push ahead “to return the calm and security to you, citizens of Israel.”

He said he is “determined to continue this operation until its aim is met.”

On that note, on Wednesday, Netanyahu briefed over 70 foreign ambassadors and diplomatic representatives at the Kirya in Tel Aviv, together with Foreign Minister Gaby Ashkenazi.

Among those in attendance were diplomatic representatives from the US, an EU representative and the ambassadors from Russia, China, India, Germany, Austria, Australia, Japan, Brazil, Canada and Italy, among others.

The Israeli government press office reported that during the briefing Netanyahu presented the ambassadors with documentation of IDF attacks in the Gaza Strip against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as the location of stockpiles of missiles, rockets, terrorist buildings, command centers and many terrorist infrastructures. Also presented were videos of firing at citizens of the State of Israel and misfiring by the terrorist organizations, which endangers the residents of the Gaza Strip. Israeli ambassadors around the world also participated in the briefing via Zoom.

Netanyahu said: “This is just one more manifestation of the fact that Hamas indiscriminately targets everyone. They murder everyone, any civilian they can get their hands on. They use civilians. They target civilians while hiding behind civilians using them as human shields. This is the problem that we face.

An Israeli artillery unit fires toward targets in Gaza Strip, at the Israeli Gaza border, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Because Hamas is embedded deeply in civilian areas, because it uses civilian human shields. Democracies have a choice. They can say there is nothing we can do. We will absorb attacks against our cities. We can do that or we can level the cities.

In World War II, when western cities, specifically London and some British cities, were targeted this way by thousands of rockets, their response was to level cities. I admire Winston Churchill. I think he was one of the greatest leaders in modern history. I don’t criticize him for anything. I think he did the right thing under those circumstances.

But this is not our response to the firing of thousands of rockets on our cities. We do something different. We try to target those who target us with great precision. That is not a surgical operation as it is. Even in a surgical room in a hospital, you don’t have the ability to prevent collateral damage around an infected tissue. Even then you can’t. Certainly in a military operation you cannot.”

The current round of fighting between Israel and Hamas began May 10 when the terrorist group fired long-range rockets toward Jerusalem after days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a flashpoint site sacred to Jews and Muslims.

Egypt and some others have worked without success to broker a halt to fighting, while Hamas officials indicated publicly they would keep up their rocket barrages into Israel as long Israel continued airstrikes. Hamas’ top leader, Ismail Haniyeh, who is based abroad, said this week that the group has been contacted by the United Nations, Russia, Egypt and Qatar as part of cease-fire efforts but “will not accept a solution that is not up to the sacrifices of the Palestinian people.”

An Israeli soldier inspects damage to an apartment in a residential building after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Ashdod, southern Israel, Monday, May 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

AP reported that Netanyahu had given no sign of plans to immediately wind down Israeli airstrikes targeting Hamas leaders and supply tunnels in Gaza, a 25-mile by 6-mile strip of territory that is home to more than 2 million people.

“You can either conquer them, and that’s always an open possibility, or you can deter them,” he told foreign ambassadors. “We are engaged right now in forceful deterrence, but I have to say, we don’t rule out anything.”

The fighting has killed at least 219 Palestinians and 12 people in Israel.

On Wednesday, it was reported that Colonel Richard Kemp, the former commander of the British military forces in Afghanistan, spoke to the Arutz Sheva web site about the ongoing conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the accusations that Israel has responded “disproportionately” to the over 3,700 rockets which have been fired at it by terrorists in the Gaza Strip over the last week and a half, as was reported on the A7 site.

“It is a disgrace to say, as many journalists and others have, that Israel is being disproportionate,” Col. Kemp stated. “The casualties on both sides are uneven, but many commentators seem to be suggesting that it would be better if more Jews were dead to balance the books.”

He explained: “Proportionality has a specific meaning in war and is nothing to do with opposing sides’ body counts. If an army attacks an enemy target where civilians are known or thought to be present then the commander must factor in a number of issues. First, is the attack really necessary, or could it be foregone without significant affect on the mission — in this case to defend Israel’s population.”

“Second, if the attack is necessary, the commander must decide whether the number of civilian casualties is likely to be disproportionate to the expected military advantage in attacking. In that case he may not attack. It is not an exact science, but a military judgement that the commander may have to justify later.

Israelis take shelter in the stairwell of their apartment building as a siren sounds a warning of incoming rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, In Ashdod, Israel, Wednesday, May 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Heidi Levine)

“Third, efforts must be made to discriminate between fighting troops and civilians, targeting fighters and avoiding civilians as far as possible. The IDF are the world leaders at achieving this, maintaining unrivalled intelligence and surveillance on a target to ensure commanders have as accurate a picture as possible. They warn civilians to leave using a combination of text messages, phone calls, leaflet drops and radio broadcasts. If civilians still do not leave the IDF then drops a specially designed munition on a building which makes a loud noise but does not destroy or kill, to warn them to leave. Sometimes even this isn’t effective because Hamas often force civilians to remain in a target area. The IDF maintain surveillance over the area and if they believe most or all civilians have not left, they often abandon a strike. I have spoken to several IDF pilots who have aborted a mission in these circumstances,” he said.

When asked about the death toll in Gaza and the number of air strikes which Israel has carried out, Col. Kemp cautioned against relying on the figures provided by the Health Ministry in Gaza, according to the Arutz Sheva report.

“It is difficult to make a general calculation on the number of civilian deaths per strike or comparison with other theatres of war, especially at the moment when figures aren’t confirmed. Palestinian Ministry of Health figures can’t be relied on although many in the media parrot them as though they are fact,” he said,

Arutz Sheva reported that Col. Kemp noted that “the health ministry is controlled by Hamas and obey their every command. Their lies have been exposed in past wars. For example, during this conflict, hundreds of Hamas rockets have fallen short and landed inside Palestinian territory. Some of these have caused deaths among Palestinian civilians and all are reported as deaths caused by Israel by the ministry of health.

Hamas demands that, because their entire strategy is built around the deaths of their own civilians. That is why they start these fights, not to defeat Israel which they cannot, but to persuade the world that Israel is responding disproportionately and committing war crimes. This is so that Israel becomes vilified and isolated in the world, including by the UN and EU. Hamas is the first “army” in history to use their own civilian population as a primary weapon of war.”

Also on Wednesday, Tazpit Press Service reported that humanitarian aid that was on its way into the Gaza Strip from Israel was shelled by Hamas terrorists.

The IDF’s The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) stated that during the entry of a shipment of civilian aid into the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom crossing, donated by Jordan, the terrorist organizations in the Strip fired three mortar shells at the crossing area.

TPS reported that following the attack, an alert was activated in the area and Israel decided to stop the entry of the shipment until further notice. The shipment included a number of trucks with medical equipment destined for the Jordanian hospital in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli bomb squad unit inspect the site where a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a sidewalk, in Ashdod, Israel, Wednesday, May 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Heidi Levine)

“Hamas’ terrorist activities, which repeatedly fire at delegations leading civilian aid and medical equipment to the Gaza Strip, are primarily affecting the residents of the Gaza Strip,” COGAT stated after the incident, according to the TPS report.

A similar incident occurred Tuesday. TPS reported that Gaza-based terrorists launched a massive bombardment of Israeli cities and towns in southern Israel on Tuesday, immediately after the IDF concluded the transfer of fuel into the Gaza Strip earlier in the day.

A soldier was lightly injured by a mortar fired at the Kerem Shalom Crossing into Gaza during the entry of civilian aid trucks into the Strip. There were 40 trucks loaded with food, medical equipment, and humanitarian aid on their way to the crossing. Later on, there was another attempt to allow the convoy to go through. While eight trucks managed to enter, there was another mortar attack and the transfer was again halted, according to the TPS report.

Lynn Hastings, the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator in Palestine said that Hamas’ mortar attacks on the crossings from Israel into the Gaza Strip while humanitarian supplies and personnel were being brought into Gaza are “unacceptable” and are “preventing vital humanitarian supplies from entering the Strip.”

AP reported that Israel has launched hundreds of airstrikes targeting Hamas’ militant infrastructure, including the homes and vehicles of top Hamas leaders and operatives. Hamas and other militant groups embedded in residential areas have fired more than 3,700 rockets at Israeli cities, with hundreds falling short and most of the rest intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile system or landing in open areas.

World Israel News has reported that the elusive head of Hamas’ military has twice managed to escape the IDF so far in Operation “Guardian of the Wall,” according to Hebrew media reports, although 160 of his comrades have not.

Muhammad Deif, the longtime commander of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, has been in hiding for years.

WIN reported that he threatened Israel in a recorded message right before Hamas began its rocket barrages on Israel 10 days ago, saying, “This is a final and clear warning to the occupiers” that if the “aggression against our people does not stop in Sheikh Jarrah at once, we will not stand idly by and the enemy will pay dearly.”

The Hamas leader was posturing as the defender of Jerusalem in general, and in particular of Arab squatters in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood also known as Shimon HaTzaddik, who have been threatened with eviction for years of nonpayment of rent to their Jewish landlords, according to the WIN report.

It was the first time his voice was heard in public since Israel invaded Gaza in 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, when another IDF assassination attempt missed him but killed his wife and two of his children.

A Channel 12 report enumerated four previous attempts on Deif’s life as well. This included an ambush on the Egyptian border in 1998, from which he escaped, and Hellfire missiles shot at his moving car in 2002, badly injuring him, as was reported by World Israel News.

People inspect the rubble of destroyed the Abu Hussein building that was hit by an Israeli airstrike early morning, in Gaza City, Wednesday, May 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

WIN reported that in 2003, the IDF actually had the opportunity to assassinate most of Hamas’ leadership, including Deif, that had gathered for a meeting, said MK Avi Dichter, who headed the Shabak in the early 2000s.

It was “the best opportunity we ever had – and would ever have” to get them all at once, he said. But the political echelon nixed going full force in the operation due to the fear of civilian casualties. As a result, only a quarter ton of explosives was dropped on the second floor of the building when the meeting was on the first floor, and Deif escaped death again, according to the WIN report.

In 2006, the Air Force struck again, hitting the apartment he was hiding in. This time, one arm and leg were amputated, but he did not quit.

His survival has made him into a mythic figure in Palestinian circles, the report said.

“The first person whose name those hundreds of young Palestinians chanted in the courtyard of Al Aqsa [during the Temple Mount riots] was Muhammad Deif,” said Avi Issacharoff, Arab Affairs commentator for Maariv. “He is the one who is leading the war right now, he’s responsible for the buildup of their strength.”

“Mohammad Deif is very involved in the military planning, the military cruelty of the terror against Israel,” said Dichter. “He plays a central role. He’s a military man with every fiber of his being, a figure whom people listen to closely.”

WIN reported that Deif grew up in the Khan Yunis refugee camp. He was arrested in 1989 and sent to prison for 16 months for his involvement at age 24 in the First Intifada, and upon his release he began his rise to power.

“He was an indiscriminate, vile murderer, killing without mercy,” said Dr. Yom Tov Samia, former head of Southern Command.

“What set him apart was his interpersonal abilities,” explained Adi Carmi, a former Shin Bet operative. “He was involved in the worst of the worst – the activities of the suicide bombers. He managed to disrupt the connection between the left and right sides of the brain of a candidate for suicide and convince him to commit a suicide attack.”

Dichter said that in 1996 Israel also frittered away “a golden opportunity” to get rid of Deif on the same day the Shin Bet killed chief Hamas bombmaker Yahya Ayyash, but “unfortunately the political echelon did not authorize his assassination.”

WIN reported that Deif then unleashed a wave of suicide bomber attacks on buses, restaurants and shops that killed hundreds of Israelis.

The IDF has managed in this round to damage its major enemy in at least one way. The maze of tunnels under Gazan cities that protect Hamas operatives from prying Israeli eyes has been Deif’s major project for years, said Carmi. This maze, which the IDF calls “the Metro,” has been the principal target of the IAF in recent days, and dozens of kilometers have been destroyed in heavy air attacks.

“This whole project, in which years and … hundreds of millions if not billions have been invested, has gone down the drain,” he said, according to the WIN report.

Dichter, for his part, believes that one day the IDF will succeed in getting the man who heads its Most Wanted list. “Every dog has its day,” he said. “His day will also come.”

(Sources: AP, Tazpit Press Service, Israel National News, World Israel News)