JERUSALEM, Israel – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told foreign ambassadors on Wednesday that there is no timeline to end Israel's war with Gaza amid increased international pressure for a ceasefire.
“We’re not standing with a stopwatch. We are taking care of the operation’s objectives," he said. "We are engaged right now in forceful deterrence, but I have to say, we don't rule out anything. We hope we can restore quiet; we hope we can restore it quickly. I want to say that we're doing that while doing our utmost to avoid civilian casualties."
Israel's military said Wednesday it has expanded its strikes on terror targets in Gaza while Hamas continues its rocket fire on Israeli civilians. Israel says it struck terror targets around the towns of Khan Younis and Rafah early Wednesday, with 52 aircraft hitting 40 underground targets over a period of 25 minutes.
US President Joe Biden is urging Netanyahu to swiftly end Israel’s bloody conflict with Gaza.
Top Biden officials told Israeli leaders on Monday and Tuesday that time is not on their side in terms of international objections to the fighting and that it is in their interest to wind down the operations soon, a source familiar with the discussions told The Associated Press.
While Biden “expressed his support for a ceasefire” during a phone call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, the US did not demand a deadline for when the fighting must end. However, Biden did warn that he won’t be able to hold off the pressure from within his party and the international community for an immediate ceasefire much longer.
Biden has been clear that he supports Israel’s right to defend itself, but has held off on publicly demanding Netanyahu to end the fighting. The Biden administration believes that Israel will not respond to public demands and that the US has more leverage with behind-the-scenes pressure, a source told AP.
Still, France is working with Egypt and Jordan to prepare a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire. The Biden administration has repeatedly blocked an effort by the UN body to release a joint statement condemning the fighting, believing it would hurt diplomatic efforts. A resolution is harder for the US to block than a joint statement and would require Washington to issue a veto.
Terrorists in Gaza have fired more than 3,700 rockets at Israeli civilians since the conflict began ten days ago. The fighting has killed at least 219 Palestinians and 12 people in Israel.
Eritrean asylum seeker family Kahase Gerensae and his children take shelter in the stairwell outside their apartment in Ashdod, Israel, during a siren warning of rockets fired from Gaza Strip, Tuesday, May 18,2021. (AP Photo/Heidi Levine)
Israel says it does not target civilians and that most of the Palestinian casualties are terrorists or resulted from errant rockets that accidentally fell in Gaza. Israel says it is focused on destroying Hamas’ terror infrastructure like underground tunnels and rocket launchers, and that it warns Palestinians about where and when it is going to strike before conducting an operation.
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.
But Israeli military spokesman Jonathan Conricus admitted that Israel’s airstrikes on Hamas targets in the densely populated coastal enclave have led to unintended civilian deaths.
“We've had certain events where there have been civilian casualties, unfortunate unintended civilian casualties that occurred in a way that or as a result, an unexpected result of some type of an attack,” Conricus said.
The tunnels run under civilian neighborhoods, and Israeli airstrikes have been trying to target roads above them to minimize damage, he added.
One airstrike that Israel said targeted a tunnel forced several buildings to collapse. The collapse buried dozens under a pile of rubble and killed 42 people in the deadliest single attack of the conflict.
Conricus said the military was reviewing the event and adjusting its strategy so that such incidents do not happen again.
A top view shows the remains of a six-story building which was destroyed by an early morning Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
As calls for ceasefire increase, Israeli leaders have signaled that the fighting could end in a matter of days. But they have also made clear that their operation in Gaza isn’t finished.
“We've reached, I think, very good levels of impact on enemy capabilities in terms of R&D (Research and Development), we're happy with the level there, but there is still a lot of work to do in terms of their underground infrastructure and in terms of the capacity to fire rockets at this stage,” said Conricus. “Still, unfortunately, if Hamas decides to fire rockets at Tel Aviv, unfortunately, they still have the capacity to do so, both in terms of launchers and in terms of rockets and the general supply system that supports it."
As the fighting between Israel and Gaza continues, there is ongoing unrest across Israel and the Palestinian territories.
On Tuesday, Palestinians across Israel and the West Bank – biblical Judea and Samaria – went on strike to protest the conflict. Arab shops in Jerusalem’s usually bustling Old City were shuttered. Although the strike was peaceful in many places, violence erupted in the West Bank.
Palestinians clash with Israeli forces at the Hawara checkpoint, south of the West Bank city of Nablus, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
Hundreds of Palestinians burned tires in Ramallah and hurled rocks at Israeli soldiers at a military checkpoint. Troops fired tear gas, and some protesters picked up the canisters and threw them back. Three protesters were killed and more than 140 wounded in clashes with Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, and other cities, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. The Israeli army said two soldiers were wounded by gunshots to the leg.
The strike followed last week’s intense communal unrest that saw violent attacks against both Jews and Arabs in Israel.