US calls on Israel to ‘de-escalate’ Gaza violence in push for ceasefire

Joe Biden has told Benjamin Netanyahu that he expects “a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire” between Israel and militants in Gaza.

The White House said that in a phone call on Wednesday, “the two leaders had a detailed discussion on the state of events in Gaza, Israel’s progress in degrading the capabilities of Hamas and other terrorist elements, and ongoing diplomatic efforts by regional governments and the United States.”

It added: “The president conveyed to the prime minister that he expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire.”

Both sides in the conflict earlier denied that a truce was imminent. Israeli media speculated that a ceasefire could be in force from early on Thursday, but Izzat al-Rishak, a senior Hamas figure, said there was no agreement.

Israeli officials also rejected the suggested timing, and Netanyahu told foreign diplomats there was no timeframe for a truce.

“We’re not standing with a stopwatch,” he said during a briefing in Tel Aviv. “What we are trying to do is … degrade their capabilities, their terror capabilities, and degrade their will.”

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Israel’s army radio reported that the security cabinet was expected to meet in the next 24 hours to discuss a possible end to the nine-day-old conflict, in which more than 200 Palestinians and 12 people in Israel have been killed.

The number of missiles fired by both sides fell for a period on Wednesday morning, raising hopes of an imminent end to the conflict. No rockets were fired from Gaza for a period of several hours. But three mortar shells were later fired at the Kerem Shalom border crossing as a consignment of humanitarian aid and medical equipment sent by Jordan was in transit. Israeli officials halted the shipment until further notice.

Israeli officials said it was the second time in 24 hours that Hamas had fired at shipments of humanitarian and medical aid entering Gaza.

Israeli jets continued to pound what officials say is an extensive tunnel network under central Gaza used by Hamas to move fighters and weapons. Al-Rimal neighbourhood was also targeted and residents reported that several homes had been destroyed. Israel claimed it had twice tried to kill the Hamas military commander, Mohammed Deif, but the elusive leader – who has previously evaded many other assassination attempts – escaped.

The intensive pre-dawn strikes marked the third round of attempts to destroy tunnels, which Israeli military commanders say have been central to the Hamas campaign, in which close to 3,500 rockets have been fired into Israel since the fighting began.

The Israeli military shelled an area across the country’s northern border with Lebanon from where four rockets were fired. The Israel Defence Forces said artillery was striking “a number of targets in Lebanese territory”.

On the diplomatic front, Egypt, Qatar and the UN are attempting to mediate between the two sides, and France has called for a UN security council resolution on the violence.

In a joint statement, France, Egypt and Jordan said they “called on the parties to immediately agree on a ceasefire”. They said they would work with the UN and other partners to ensure humanitarian help for the population of Gaza.

A French government spokesperson said “very intense discussions” were under way with the US about a resolution.

Washington has repeatedly blocked efforts before the UN security council to draft joint statements calling for the fighting to end, saying it would not help diplomatic efforts to curtail the conflict. However, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, has said Washington is engaged in “quiet, intensive diplomacy”.

The UK government is “fully committed” to trying to bring about a ceasefire and reduce tensions in the region, the Foreign Office minister James Cleverly told parliament. He condemned “acts of terrorism by Hamas and other terrorist groups”, saying there was “no justification for targeting civilians”. Israel had a “legitimate right to self-defence” but “it is vital that all actions are proportionate”, he said.

In a televised address, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, accused Israel of carrying out “organised state terrorism and war crimes” in Gaza. Palestinians “will not hesitate to pursue those who commit such crimes in front of international courts,” he said.

Israel said an explosion that killed eight members of a Palestinian family on the first day of fighting last week had been caused by a misfired rocket from Gaza, not an Israeli airstrike.

A senior military officer, speaking anonymously on Wednesday, said an investigation had concluded that Israel did not strike the Beit Hanoun area where the family members were killed that night. The officer added that one in five rockets launched by militants landed inside Gaza.

On Tuesday an Israeli airstrike knocked out the only laboratory in Gaza that processes Covid tests.

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