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Biden Supports Cease-fire In Call To Netanyahu As Israel-Hamas Violence Escalates

Israeli soldiers fire a howitzer toward the Gaza Strip on Monday. President Biden is among those in Washington encouraging a cease-fire.
Emmanuel Dunand
AFP via Getty Images
Israeli soldiers fire a howitzer toward the Gaza Strip on Monday. President Biden is among those in Washington encouraging a cease-fire.

Updated May 17, 2021 at 10:09 PM ET

The White House said that when President Biden talked to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, he "expressed his support for a cease-fire and discussed U.S. engagement with Egypt and other partners towards that end."

So far, the White House had declined to call for a cease-fire publicly, urging de-escalation and stating its support for Israel's self-defense. The White House said Biden reiterated that support to Netanyahu while also encouraging Israel "to ensure the protection of innocent civilians."

Calls for a cease-fire have intensified in Washington, including among Democrats in Congress who are strong supporters of Israel and even some Republicans.

Israeli warplanes pounded targets early Monday in Gaza City as the escalating conflict between Hamas and Israel entered its second week.

Palestinian officials said nearly 200 people have been killed by Israeli airstrikes in recent days, including many children. The death toll on the Israeli side stands at eight, including one child.

"Last night, the attacks from the Israeli warplanes were heavier and lasted longer than ever before," Leni Stenseth of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency told NPR. The last week of bombardment has damaged infrastructure in Gaza, she added, including hospitals and schools.

Meanwhile, Hamas continued launching rockets at Israel, hitting a synagogue late Sunday evening. International efforts to quell some of the worst violence in years between Israel and Hamas have not led to any indication of a cease-fire.

"This senseless cycle of bloodshed, terror and destruction must stop immediately," U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in remarks Sunday.

The violence is spiking to new levels at a time when the U.S. is conducting an arms sale to Israel worth some $735 million — news first reported Monday by The Washington Post.

The deal centers on Joint Direct Attack Munition kits, which according to the U.S. Navy, add GPS guidance and other features to standard bombs to convert them into "precision-guided 'smart' munitions."

Details about the sale were confirmed to NPR by the office of Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

"This was informally cleared in April and we received formal notice on May 5," said Leslie Shedd, spokesperson for Republicans on the House committee. "There is a 15-day review process — which ends on the 20th. The ranking member supports this sale."

House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Gregory Meeks plans to send a letter to the administration requesting that the sale be delayed while lawmakers review it, a Democratic aide told NPR. The letter was first reported by Vox.

The Foreign Affairs Committee's Democratic members held a virtual meeting Monday in which several members raised concerns about the weapons sale, and said it should not go forward until a cease-fire agreement is reached.

Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro was one of those members, and said a delay would allow many members who were caught off guard by the notice of the sales via news reports on Monday.

"It would be reasonable to ask for a delay in that sale so that we could review it given everything that is going on, particularly the fact that Israel, who is our good friend and who the United States has supported for generations, now targeted a building that housed an American company, the Associated Press, Castro said.

"You can't just look the other way at that. The United States needs to send a firm message.

Castro conceded that not all Democrats are on the same page.

"There is a diversity of opinion about what we should do in terms of handling the situation," Castro said.

At this point, any potential joint resolution of disapproval would require a special exception, because the window to file a disapproval has already technically lapsed.

Israel launched dozens of airstrikes in Gaza shortly after Netanyahu warned that attacks against Hamas targets would continue at full force. According to the Israel Defense Forces, Israel destroyed more than 9 miles of a tunnel system used by Hamas overnight.

"We'll do whatever it takes to restore order and quiet and the security of our people and deterrence," Netanyahu said Sunday on CBS. "We're trying to degrade Hamas' terrorist abilities and to degrade their will to do this again. So it'll take some time. I hope it won't take long, but it's not immediate."

Local media reports said a main road and an electrical line servicing the only power plant to much of Gaza City were hit.

These developments come after a devastating offensive on Gaza over the weekend, which flattened buildings and killed more than three dozen Palestinians, including many women and children. Israel said one of its attacks targeted underground Hamas militant infrastructure, leading the foundations of the homes above it to collapse.

"The ongoing military operation causes immense distress on a population that has nowhere to flee," Stenseth told NPR. Israel imposes a blockade from air, land and sea on Gaza, which has a population of about 2 million people. Egypt keeps its border with Gaza largely closed as well.

Over the weekend, Israeli warplanes also destroyed a building housing offices for media organizations including The Associated Press and Al-Jazeera. Israel said Hamas military intelligence infrastructure was in the building, without publishing proof, and the AP has demanded an independent investigation.

The IDF said Monday that it killed a leader of the Islamic Jihad group, Hussam Abu Harbid, who it says was responsible for launching rockets into Israel.

NPR's Claudia Grisales contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.