Biden says Israel has a ‘right to defend itself’ as he sends envoy to deescalate conflict
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President Joe Biden, speaking from the White House at a virtual event hosted by the Munich Security Conference, said the U.S. and its allies must address Iran’s destabilizing influence, Feb. 19, 2021.

By Ron Kampeas

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Saying that Israel has a right to defend itself, President Joe Biden has sent his top Israeli-Palestinian negotiator to the region in a bid to deescalate the deepening conflict there.

During a White House news conference Wednesday afternoon, Biden said he had just spoken to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and had an “expectation and hope” that the conflict would end soon.

“My national security staff and Defense staff has been in constant contact with their counterparts in the Middle East — not just with the Israelis, but also with everyone from the Egyptians, to the Saudis, to the Emiratis, et cetera,” Biden said. “And I had a conversation with Bibi Netanyahu not too long ago. I’ll be putting out a statement very shortly on that. My expectation and hope is that this will be closing down sooner than later. But Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory.”

Hamas rocket fire has so far killed seven Israelis, including two children, since Monday, when clashes in Jerusalem erupted into Israel’s first major conflict with Hamas since 2014.

Israeli retaliatory bombings have killed at least 65 people in the Gaza Strip, including 16 children and, Israeli officials say, several top Hamas officials. Meanwhile, violence between Arabs and Jews has broken out in cities across the country. Late Wednesday, Israelis across the country — and for the first time, as far north as Galilee — hunkered down for another night in bomb shelters.

Earlier Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a top envoy was headed to the region.

“I’ve asked Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hady Amr to go to the region immediately to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders,” Blinken said at a news conference releasing this year’s State Department report on religious freedom. “He will bring to bear his decades of experience and, in particular, he will urge on my behalf and on behalf of President Biden a deescalation of violence. We are very focused on this.”

Blinken emphatically defended Israel’s right to defend itself, while noting its obligations to protect civilians.

“There is first a very clear and absolute distinction between a terrorist organization, Hamas, that is indiscriminately raining down rockets — in fact, targeting civilians — and Israel’s response defending itself that is targeting the terrorists who are raining down rockets on Israel,” he said. “But whenever we see civilian casualties, and particularly when we see children caught in the crossfire losing their lives, that has a powerful impact. And I think Israel has an extra burden in trying to do everything it possibly can to avoid civilian casualties, even as it is rightfully responding in defense of its people.”

The remarks come as Democrats are increasingly prone to blame both Israel — to varying degrees — as well as Hamas for the escalating violence. Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who is Jewish, was the latest Democrat to call for a ceasefire.

“The outbreak of brutal violence in Israel and Gaza has killed dozens of Israeli and Palestinian civilians, including at least 16 children, and wounded hundreds more,” Raskin said Wednesday on Twitter. “That fact compels an immediate ceasefire to save human life and prospects for peace. Hamas must stop its indiscriminate rocket attacks on the people of Israel now. Like all sovereign states, Israel has a right to defend itself and is bound by international law and humanitarian law to actively protect civilians from harm in doing so.”

A number of Democrats have unequivocally defended Israel, as have virtually all Republicans who have spoken on the escalation in violence.

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