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Palestinians in the Gaza Strip leave their neighborhood on Wednesday following an explosion. Photo: li Jadallah/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Tel Aviv — With Israel and Hamas now engaged in their most destructive fight in seven years, the Biden administration is dispatching a State Department official to join the de-escalation efforts.

The latest: The Israeli air force attacked a meeting of senior Hamas military leaders on Wednesday in Gaza and reported it had killed the Gaza City Brigade commander and the heads of Hamas’ cyber arm and weapons research and development department, along with at least three other senior officials.

The fighting intensified overnight, with Hamas and other militants firing over 100 rockets toward Tel Aviv and other nearby cities, and Israel continuing its air campaign in the Gaza Strip by destroying high-rise buildings, Hamas facilities and rocket units.

  • At least 53 Palestinians have been killed since the fighting began, including at least 14 children, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.
  • Six Israelis have been killed and 200 wounded. The first Israeli soldier was killed and two others were critically wounded when Hamas fired anti-tank rockets at military vehicles along the border with Gaza.

What they're saying: "Israel is not preparing for a ceasefire. There is currently no end date for the operation. Only when we achieve complete quiet can we talk about calm. We will not listen to moral preaching against our duty to protect the citizens of Israel," said Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz.

  • Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said at a briefing on Wednesday: "There is 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.
  • Blinken added that Israel "has an extra burden in trying to do everything it possibly can to avoid civilian casualties even as it responds."

Behind the scenes: The Biden administration is trying to work with Egypt to push for de-escalation, U.S. and Israeli officials told me.

  • As Axios reported Wednesday morning, deputy assistant secretary of state for Israeli-Palestinian affairs Hady Amr will travel to Tel Aviv on Wednesday. Secretary of State Tony Blinken confirmed that news later on Wednesday.
  • That will be the most active U.S. intervention so far in the Gaza crisis, and Amr’s first trip to the region since assuming office.

Meanwhile, national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke on Tuesday to his Egyptian counterpart, Abbas Kamel. The White House said Sullivan discussed “steps to restore calm over the coming days" with Egyptian officials.

  • State Department officials have also been communicating with Cairo.
  • Sullivan also spoke with his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat. According to the White House, Sullivan condemned the Hamas rocket attacks and “conveyed the President’s unwavering support for Israel’s security and for its legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians."
  • Secretary of State Blinken also spoke on Tuesday with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. Israeli officials tell me Blinken didn’t press the Israelis to stop the operation in Gaza for now, but he stressed the U.S. doesn’t want things to escalate into an all-out war and wants to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza.

The big picture: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been a low priority in President Biden's early months, but once a crisis erupted, the administration found itself understaffed.

  • Unlike his predecessors, Biden didn’t appoint an envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He still hasn't nominated an ambassador to Israel or followed through on his plans to reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.
  • That has left him without a senior diplomat on the ground to talk to either the Palestinian or Israeli leadership. At this time four years ago, Trump’s ambassador was already in Israel.
  • Instead, Amr has functioned as both the deputy assistant secretary and the de facto consul general and point of contact to the Palestinians.

The state of play: Egyptian and UN mediators are talking to both parties, but were rebuffed by the Israeli government when they raised the possibility of a ceasefire, Israeli officials tell me."

"We’re escalating towards a full-scale war. Leaders on all sides have to take the responsibility of de-escalation. The cost of war in Gaza is devastating. Stop the violence now."
UN envoy Tor Wennesland on Tuesday

This story was updated with new details about the latest air strikes.

Go deeper

Aug 18, 2021 - World

Scoop: CIA director raised China concerns with Israeli prime minister

The U.S. has raised concerns about Chinese investment in the Port of Haifa project. Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty

While visiting Israel last week, CIA director Bill Burns told Prime Minister Naftali Bennett the U.S. was concerned about Chinese investments in Israel, particularly in the tech sector, and involvement in major infrastructure projects, Israeli officials tell Axios.

Why it matters: That's the highest level at which the Biden administration has raised an issue that previously became a rare point of contention between the Trump and Netanyahu governments.

Aug 18, 2021 - World

Dispute with Poland on Holocaust shows Israel's shift on EU relations

Netanyahu (R) in 2019 with Polish President Andrzej Duda (C) and then-Vice President Mike Pence. Photo: Janek Skarzynski/AFP via Getty Images

The diplomatic crisis over a Polish law limiting the ability to introduce claims to property confiscated during World War II is a manifestation of the shift in Israeli policy toward Europe under the new government.

Why it matters: The bill will mostly impact Holocaust survivors and their descendants, and it's seen by the Israeli government and the Biden administration as another step by Poland's government to rewrite the country's history around the Holocaust.

Aug 18, 2021 - World

CIA director was traveling in Middle East when Kabul fell

Bill Burns departs his confirmation hearing. Photo: Tom Brenner/Pool/Getty

While the drama in Kabul was unfolding over the weekend, CIA director Bill Burns was on a six-day trip to the Middle East.

Why it matters: The CIA and the rest of the U.S. intelligence community have been highly criticized in recent days for an apparent intelligence failure over the swift Taliban takeover. The fact that Burns was on an overseas trip suggests the agency didn’t think a collapse was imminent.