Israel's Netanyahu determined to continue Gaza operation

AP/Gaza City
Filed on May 19, 2021 | Last updated on May 19, 2021 at 10.57 pm
Palestinians inspect a damaged vehicle in the aftermath of an Israeli air strike on a house in Gaza City. — Reuters

US President Joe Biden told Netanyahu that he expected a significant de-escalation on the path to a ceasefire

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to press ahead with a fierce military offensive in the Gaza Strip, pushing back on Wednesday against calls from the US to wind down the operation that has left hundreds dead.

Netanyahu's tough comments marked the first public rift between the two close allies since the fighting began last week and could complicate international efforts to reach a ceasefire.

Israel continued to pound targets in Gaza with air strikes on Wednesday, while Palestinian militants bombarded Israel with rocket fire throughout the day. In another sign of potential escalation, militants in Lebanon fired a barrage of rockets into northern Israel.

After a visit to military headquarters, Netanyahu said he "greatly appreciates the support of the American president", but said Israel will push ahead "to return the calm and security to you, citizens of Israel".

He said he is "determined to continue this operation until its aim is met".

He spoke shortly after US President Joe Biden told Netanyahu that he expected a significant de-escalation on the path to a ceasefire.

Biden had previously avoided pressing Israel more directly and publicly for a ceasefire with Gaza's Hamas rulers. But pressure has been ramping up on Biden to intervene more forcefully as other diplomatic efforts also gather strength.

Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed to press ahead with the operation, and his latest response to Biden signalled he had no intentions of stopping.

Egyptian negotiators have also been working to halt the fighting, and an Egyptian diplomat said top officials were waiting for Israel's response to a ceasefire offer. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he would fly to the region on Thursday for talks with Israelis and Palestinians.

Earlier in the day, the Israeli military said it was widening its strikes on militant targets in southern Gaza to blunt continuing rocket fire from Hamas. At least nine people were killed in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday.

During the current round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, at least 227 Palestinians have been killed, including 64 children and 38 women, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Hamas and Islamic Jihad say at least 20 of their fighters have been killed, while Israel says the number is at least 130. Some 58,000 Palestinians have fled their homes.

Twelve people in Israel, including a five-year-old boy, a 16-year-old girl and a soldier, have been killed.

On Wednesday, militants in Lebanon fired a barrage of rockets into northern Israel, threatening to open up a new front in fighting.

The rocket attack, which drew Israeli artillery fire in response but did not cause any injuries, raised the possibility of dragging Israel into renewed conflict with Hezbollah to its north.

In Gaza, one of the Israeli airstrikes destroyed the home of an extended family.

Residents surveyed the piles of bricks, concrete and other debris that had once been the home of 40 members of Al Astal family in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis. They said a warning missile struck the building five minutes before the airstrike, allowing everyone to escape.

Ahmed Al Astal, a university professor, described a scene of panic, with men, women and children racing out of the building. Some of the women didn't even have time to cover their hair with Muslim headscarves, he said.

Another strike in nearby Deir Al Balah killed a man, his wife and their 2-year-old daughter, witnesses said. Iyad Salha, a brother of the man who was killed, said the family had just sat down for lunch when the missile hit.

Among those killed on Wednesday were a reporter for Hamas-run Al Aqsa radio and two people who died when warning missiles crashed into their apartment.

The Israeli military said it was striking a militant tunnel network in southern Gaza, with 52 aircraft hitting 40 underground targets.

Israeli attacks have damaged at least 18 hospitals and clinics and destroyed one health facility, the World Health Organization said. Nearly half of all essential drugs have run out.

The Gaza Health Ministry said it had salvaged coronavirus vaccines after shrapnel from an Israeli airstrike damaged the territory's only testing facility, which also administered hundreds of vaccines. The operations were relocated to another clinic.

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