May 19, 2021

Axios from Tel Aviv

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • Today's edition (1,999 words, 7 minutes) focuses on the crisis in Gaza, the push for a ceasefire, and the ripples of the violence in the West Bank and Israeli cities.

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1 big thing: Biden vs. Bibi on Gaza ceasefire

Ryad Eshkuntana checks on his daughter Suzy as they receive medical care at al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City after his wife and other children were killed in an Israeli airstrike. Photo: Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty

After 10 days of standing behind Israel's military campaign in the Gaza Strip, President Biden made clear that he is running out of patience. Biden told Netanyahu he expects "significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire," per the White House readout of their call.

Why it matters: 219 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting, at least half of them civilians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Israel is under growing international pressure to end its operation — though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted earlier on Wednesday that Israel wouldn't "stand with a timer" and needed additional time to complete its objectives.

  • Biden was "firm" on the call and sent a clear message that he's "done kidding around and Israel needs to finish it," a source briefed on the call tells Axios.
  • But Netanyahu has elected not to convene the Security Cabinet today, meaning a decision on a ceasefire is unlikely today because that would require Cabinet approval, Israeli officials say.
  • Netanyahu said in a statement that he appreciated Biden's support for Israel's right to self-defense but was "determined to continue the operation in Gaza until it achieves the goal of restoring calm."

The state of play: Hamas continued to fire rockets toward Israel on Wednesday, but the numbers decreased and the fire focused on towns and cities in southern Israel.

  • Israeli officials say Hamas is rationing its rockets, fearing the fighting could continue for a longer period than expected.
  • The Israeli air force continued its airstrikes in Gaza on Wednesday and said it was focusing on Hamas and Islamic Jihad field commanders’ houses and on parts of Hamas’ tunnel system in Gaza.

Behind the scenes: The shifting U.S. position has been clear in calls between top U.S. and Israeli officials.

  • When Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke on Tuesday to his Israeli counterpart, Benny Gantz, he focused much more on the need for de-escalation than on Israel's right to self-defense, according to the Israeli officials.
  • Most recently, Austin called Gantz on Wednesday to urge the need for a ceasefire.
  • Gantz said Israel would proceed responsibly and engage in diplomacy with "moderate forces in the region," according to the Israeli officials, but didn't commit to a ceasefire.
  • Privately, Israeli officials say the ceasefire talks could gain momentum in the next 24 hours, but contend that such a pause would be fragile and could collapse quickly.

Meanwhile, Egypt, Qatar and the UN are leading the push toward a ceasefire.

  • Egypt presented to Israel and Hamas a proposal for a basic "quiet for quiet" ceasefire, Israeli officials say.
  • Hamas officials told the Egyptians they're ready for a ceasefire but want Israel to take steps regarding the situation in Jerusalem, while Israel refuses to discuss any agreement that would link the Gaza conflict to Jerusalem, sources familiar with the talks tell me.
  • The backstory: The current escalation began May 10 in Jerusalem after Israeli police raided the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, or Temple Mount, where Palestinians had been protesting the possible evictions of six Palestinian families in favor of Jewish settlers. After the raid, Hamas fired rockets on Israel.

What's next: In New York, negotiations on a French-led UN Security Council draft resolution calling for a ceasefire are expected to start.

  • On Thursday, the UN General Assembly will convene to discuss the Gaza crisis. It's unclear if the meeting will include a vote on a non-binding resolution.
  • After a ceasefire is achieved, the Biden administration must swiftly appoint an ambassador to Israel, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told me.
  • “The U.S. must recapture its historic role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The U.S. will have to be stronger in its discussions with the Israelis to make sure there is a path for a Palestinian state. Without it, these clashes will become regular and frequent," Murphy said.
2. The view from Gaza: Bad and getting worse

Father and daughter in Gaza City. Photo: Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Shortages of food, water, fuel and medicine are growing more dire in Gaza, and further fighting will make them dramatically worse, Matthias Schmale, the Gaza director for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) told me in a Zoom interview on Tuesday evening.

The state of play: The most urgent problem is the displacement of Palestinians, including the around 50,000 who left their homes near the border with Israel, fearing a ground invasion, and are now taking shelter in 60 UNRWA schools.

“Parents here are mainly worried for the security of their children. People here say that they sleep in the same room with their children so that if they die in an airstrike they will be together. This is what I hear from people. They are terrified and traumatized."
— Matthias Schmale, UNRWA

When the Israeli operation in Gaza started, most markets had food and other supplies for one week, Schmale says. With border crossings now almost completely closed, shortages at grocery stores began to be reported on Tuesday.

  • Fuel shortages were also reported Tuesday, and the Gaza power plant has sufficient fuel for only six hours per day. Israel allowed five trucks with fuel to enter Gaza in order to resupply UNRWA and other UN agencies.
  • Many parts of the Gaza Strip have insufficient supplies of clean water because of the destruction of infrastructure by Israeli airstrikes and because a desalinization plant was damaged, Schmale says.
  • Schmale was briefed by a Gaza Ministry of Health official who told him hospitals were stretched to their limits. If the fighting continues, medical care will collapse, and if the border remains closed, they will run out of medicine, Schmale was told.

There's no distinction between military and civilian areas in Gaza, Schmale says. Hamas fires rockets from residential areas, and Israel — in targeting Hamas — strikes areas that are often densely packed with civilians.

  • The UNRWA official said the Israeli military contacted him several days ago while he was visiting the al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City warning him not to leave the hospital because an airstrike would take place imminently nearby.

The movements of UN staff in Gaza are severely limited due to the fighting, and each move must be constantly coordinated with both Hamas and the Israeli military, Schmale says.

  • He has worked in many conflict zones around the world but never witnessed eight days of constant rocket fire and airstrikes.
  • “We don’t have a bomb shelter here, just the blue UN flag on the roof," he said.
3. 2014 Gaza war looms large for top U.S. officials

Palestinians wave white flags as they flee during the 2014 Gaza war. Photo: Sameh Rahmi/NurPhoto/Corbis via Getty

Bad memories from the 2014 war in Gaza have shaped the U.S. response to the latest crisis, U.S. officials tell me.

Why it matters: The 2014 war lasted for 50 days and included an Israeli ground invasion into Gaza. Almost 2,500 Palestinians were killed, many of them civilians, along with 69 Israeli soldiers and five Israeli civilians.

Flashback: At least three senior Biden administration officials were deeply involved in the U.S. response to the 2014 war.

  • As Israel was running out of Iron Dome interceptors, Secretary of State Blinken — then Barack Obama's deputy national security adviser — scrambled to provide emergency assistance.
  • Deputy national security adviser Jon Finer witnessed firsthand the collapse of the U.S.-led peace process, escalation toward war and failed efforts to reach a ceasefire as-then Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief of staff.
  • Hady Amr, the State Department official dispatched to Israel this week, was also on Kerry’s team. He tried to work on a ceasefire agreement during the fighting, and he later worked on humanitarian relief and reconstruction in Gaza.

Driving the news: This time around, the Biden administration wants to avoid an Israeli ground invasion, prevent mass civilian casualties and end the hostilities as quickly as possible, U.S. officials tell me.

  • Biden, Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan have led the U.S. response from Washington, with Amr speaking to senior Israeli and Palestinian officials and updating Blinken on the events on the ground.

Israel's attack last Saturday on the building in Gaza that housed the Associated Press offices was a tipping point for the Biden administration, which has since been increasing the pressure on Israel to end its operation. On Monday, Biden gave that message to Netanyahu directly.

  • In meetings over the past four days with Israeli officials including Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Amr has been asking probing questions about what needs to happen to stop the bloodshed, sources briefed on the meetings tell me.
  • In a meeting today with Netanyahu's senior advisers, he made clear that the U.S. wants a ceasefire.

The Biden administration has also spoken to Egypt and Qatar, the two Arab countries who have the most influence on Hamas, and asked them to work together to push for a ceasefire.

  • Unlike in previous conflicts, the Egyptians and Qataris are coordinating their efforts.

What’s next: The Biden administration hopes a ceasefire can be reached by the end of the weekend, sources briefed on the matter tell me.

4. Biden irks Israel by weighing in on violence between Jews and Arabs

A torched synagogue in Lod. Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty

The Biden administration's public and private comments on the inter-communal violence between Jews and Arabs in Israel have irked Israeli officials.

What they're saying: One Israeli official lamenting the U.S. intervention asked me: "Would Israel dare to weigh in on the George Floyd killing?"

The big picture: The crisis in Jerusalem and the escalation in Gaza led to the worst inter-communal violence Israel has seen since the start of the Second Intifada in 2000, though it has died down in recent days.

  • The violence has been worst in mixed cities with significant Jewish and Arab populations. Arabs have attacked Jews and burned synagogues, while Jews have violently targeted Arabs.

Biden and Blinken have raised the violence in all of their recent calls with Netanyahu and Ashkenazi.

  • They also made their concerns public in official readouts. The White House said Biden had raised "grave concerns" about the violence with Netanyahu and “encouraged continued steps to hold violent extremists accountable."
  • Between the lines: Previous administrations have refrained from touching this particular hot potato. But the scenes from Israeli cities — in particular the viral images of an Arab man allegedly being lynched by a Jewish mob — have resonated in the U.S. and likely drove the Biden administration to respond, one senior Democrat told me.

The state of play: Israeli authorities have been accused of coming down much harder on Arabs than on Jews.

  • Most of the 1,200 arrests and all 120 indictments submitted to date have been against Arabs.

Zoom in: Some of the worst violence has taken place in Lod, near Tel Aviv, where one Jew and one Arab have been killed during widespread riots.

  • After the local police chief said Tuesday in a meeting with Jewish and Arab residents that there had been “terrorists on both sides," he was criticized by the man who appointed him just a few months ago.
  • Public Security Minister Amir Ohana claimed there was "no symmetry” because Arabs had carried out most of the attacks.

What to watch: The umbrella organization of the Arab minority in Israel announced the biggest general strike in 20 years on Tuesday, with many Arab citizens of Israel staying home from work at Jewish-owned businesses and even hospitals.

The bottom line: It will take a long time to repair the damage to Arab-Israeli coexistence inside Israel.

5. Fears of "third intifada" as violence spills over to West Bank

Palestinian protesters in Nablus in the West Bank. Photo: Ayman Nobani/Xinhua via Getty Images

As the Gaza crisis has raged on, the most serious clashes in years between Palestinian demonstrators and the Israeli military in the West Bank have broken out.

Why it matters: Israel is concerned that further escalation in the West Bank could turn into a third intifada. The Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising against Israel, lasted from 2000 to 2005 and left about 1,000 Israelis and over 3,000 Palestinians dead.

Driving the news: Thousands of Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli soldiers on Tuesday in several locations in the West Bank.

  • At least four Palestinians were killed on Tuesday and 15 since the clashes began, Palestinian health officials say.
  • Hamas leaders in Gaza and in exile have called on the Palestinian public to join the demonstrations in an apparent attempt to boost the group's standing in the West Bank.
  • While fueled by the events in Gaza, the latest escalation is also part of a decades-long resistance to Israel’s occupation in the West Bank.

In most cases, the protesters have thrown stones and burned tires, but multiple incidents were reported on Tuesday in which protesters fired at Israeli soldiers.

  • In one case in Ramallah, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade — the military wing of Fatah — was responsible for the shooting, Lebanese media reported.
  • Armed militiaman associated with the group — the largest militia in the West Bank — have been repeatedly spotted in the West Bank in recent days.

What to watch: The militia group had been inactive for more than a decade, during which time many of its members joined the Palestinian Authority security forces or got jobs in civilian government ministries.

  • A reemergence of this militia could lead to a serious escalation in the West Bank.