- The Washington Times - Monday, May 17, 2021

Fresh Israeli strikes on Gaza on Monday killed a top military official of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which the State Department considers an Iranian-backed terrorist group blamed for some of the thousands of rockets launched at Israeli in recent days.

The killing of Hussam Abu Harbeed, the armed commander of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in northern Gaza, was considered a major strategic victory for Israel while its leaders were reportedly weighing whether to pull back and embrace international calls for a cease-fire after more than a week of war.

Facing growing pressure at home and abroad to intervene, President Biden expressed for the first time U.S. support for a cease-fire in a Monday phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He also reaffirmed what he said was Israel’s right to defend itself against “indiscriminate” rocket attacks.

Mr. Biden “expressed his support for a cease-fire and discussed U.S. engagement with Egypt and other partners towards that end,” said a summary of the call released by the White House. “The two leaders agreed that they and their teams would remain in close touch.”

“There is a sense Israel could seriously talk cease-fire by midweek,” one diplomatic source in the region told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity.

There was little sign of momentum toward a truce despite mounting international calls to stop the violence. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, which is aligned with Palestinian Islamic Jihad and politically controls Gaza, might be within reach.

“Egypt is going to great lengths to reach a cease-fire between the Israelis and Palestinians, and hope still exists that a collective action could end the conflict,” Mr. el-Sissi told the Al-Arabiya news outlet.

Despite the call from Mr. Biden, Mr. Netanyahu did not indicate that the fighting would end soon. After a meeting with his security aides Monday night, he declared that Israel would “continue to strike terror targets” in Gaza.

“We will continue to operate as long as necessary in order to return calm and security to all Israeli citizens,” he said.

A spokesman for Hamas’ military wing said the Palestinians would maintain their missile barrage as long as Israeli attacks continue.

“The criminal Zionist enemy intensified its bombing of homes and residential apartments in the recent hours, and therefore we warn the enemy that if it did not stop that immediately, we would resume rocketing Tel Aviv,” said Hamas spokesman Abu Ubaida, according to the Reuters news agency.

At least 212 Palestinians, including 61 children and 36 women, have been killed in a week of airstrikes. More than 1,400 people have been wounded, according to Gaza Health Ministry figures given to The Associated Press. Ten Israelis, including a 5-year-old boy and a soldier, also have been killed in the exchange of rocket fire.

Mr. el-Sissi and Jordanian King Abdullah spent the weekend scrambling to erect diplomatic back channels between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Both sides appear to be looking for benefits from the fighting.

Analysts say the Palestinians and their Iranian backers are pressing the narrative internationally that Israel is the aggressor. Israeli forces, on the other hand, are seizing the moment to pound militant positions in Gaza in response to waves of rockets fired toward Israeli cities and towns.

An Egyptian diplomat said on background that the efforts to negotiate a cease-fire are focusing on two issues: an end to all attacks from both sides and an end to Israeli policies in the contested city of Jerusalem that helped spark the fighting. These include police raids against Palestinian protesters in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the planned evictions of Palestinians by Jewish settlers in east Jerusalem.

U.S. on the sidelines

Although the Biden-Netanyahu phone call may signify that the ground is shifting, Washington has declined to publicly criticize Israel’s part in the fighting or send a top-level envoy to the region. It has blocked a move by the U.N. Security Council to issue a unified statement calling on the parties to stop the shooting.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Monday that Washington will support any initiative to stop the fighting. Still, he signaled that the U.S. does not intend to pressure the two sides to accept a cease-fire.

“Ultimately, it is up to the parties to make clear that they want to pursue a cease-fire,” Mr. Blinken said.

A State Department spokesman later said Mr. Blinken spoke by phone Monday with Jordanian Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Ayman Safadi and “both agreed on the urgency of working toward a sustainable calm.”

During the call, Mr. Blinken “reiterated that both Israelis and Palestinians equally deserve to live in safety and security,” the spokesman said.

The State Department made the announcement after Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said the Palestinian group had 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.”

The commander of Iran’s elite military Quds Force, meanwhile, has promised Hamas that Iranian forces will provide strong backing for the group in the escalating clash. Brig. Gen. Esmaeil Qaani, who heads Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ overseas force, spoke by phone with Mr. Haniyeh over the weekend and praised the “resistance forces’ successful confrontation with the Zionist enemy.”

The Iranian Tasnim News Agency reported the call Sunday.

The State Department has designated Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad as terrorist organizations since 1997. The department has listed Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984. The most recent Country Reports on Terrorism compiled by the department contended that Iran in 2019 “provided support to Hamas and other designated Palestinian terrorist groups, including Palestine Islamic Jihad.”

Israel’s military unleashed a wave of heavy airstrikes on Gaza and said it destroyed 9 miles of militant tunnels and the homes of nine Hamas commanders. The strikes landed a day after the deadliest attack in the round of hostilities between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers, which killed 42 people and flattened three buildings in Gaza.

Gaza Mayor Yahya Sarraj told Al-Jazeera T.V. that the strikes caused extensive damage to roads and other infrastructure.

“If the aggression continues, we expect conditions to become worse,” he said.

Palestinian militants continued launching rocket attacks from residential areas in Gaza toward civilian population centers in Israel.

Separately, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tried to win Pope Francis’ support for the Palestinian cause during a private meeting Monday at the Vatican. Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency reported that Mr. Zarif used the meeting to tell the pope that “Palestinians are in a deplorable situation.”

It was not immediately clear how the presentation was received. Vatican News, an official website of the Vatican, carried no mention of the Iranian foreign minister’s visit on its English-language version.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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