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Netanyahu rebuffs Biden’s call for ‘significant de-escalation today’ as Israel, Hamas continue attacks

Palestinian children look at a destroyed car after it was hit during an Israeli airstrike near Gaza City on Wednesday. (Hatem Moussa/AP)

TEL AVIV — Despite new pressure from the Biden administration to de-escalate violence, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday said he was “determined to continue this operation until its goal is achieved” as fighting raged for a 10th day.

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President Biden told Netanyahu on a phone call Wednesday that he “expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a cease-fire,” according to the White House, in the most assertive language used publicly by the administration since the start of the conflict.

In response, Netanyahu tweeted, “I especially appreciate the support of US President Joe Biden, for the right to self-defense for the State of Israel. I am determined to continue this operation until its goal is achieved, to restore peace and security to you, the citizens of Israel.”

Here’s what to know:

  • The Palestinian death toll in Gaza rose to 228, including at least 64 children, local health officials said Wednesday. In the West Bank, at least 21 Palestinians have been killed since Friday, officials there said.
  • The death toll in Israel stood at 12, including two children, after police said two Thai workers were killed Tuesday by rockets fired from Gaza.
  • Biden’s demand came after he faced protests during a visit to a Ford auto plant in Dearborn, Mich., the heart of the state’s Arab American community.
  • The Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations challenged the Biden administration to show results from its diplomatic efforts after the United States continued to block U.N. Security Council action on grounds it would interfere with attempts to negotiate a cease-fire.

Latest updates on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Biden’s call for de-escalation came amid mounting international demands for a cease-fire and as Egyptian mediators lead negotiations between the two sides. On Wednesday, Izzat al-Rishq, a member of Hamas’s political bureau, denied reports in Israeli and Arab news media that a cease-fire agreement had been reached for Thursday.

Senior Hamas political official Moussa Abu Marzouk said in an interview with Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV on Wednesday that he expects a cease-fire “within a day or two,” Reuters reported.

So far, Israeli forces have destroyed more than 60 miles of underground tunnels, struck 80 rocket launchers and killed at least 130 militants, a senior Israeli military officer said Wednesday. The officer gave an initial assessment on the condition of anonymity, according to military protocol.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made no mention of any halt to 10 days of fighting in public remarks to foreign ambassadors to Israel on May 19. (Video: Reuters)

He said Israel had a “factory of targets” that had been prepared for years in advance to be used when the “opportunity” arose. Israel has achieved many of its objectives, but there is “still work to do,” he added.

“We are assessing whether the achievements are enough to bring the message to Hamas,” he said. “We can go more days, more weeks.”

He declined to elaborate on whether a cease-fire was imminent and said discussions are underway among Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi on the “right time.”

Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Gaza and Palestinian militants have fired rocket salvos in the most intense fighting in years. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Hamas has slowed its rocket fire in recent days, and sirens in Tel Aviv have been silent since Saturday night. But the Palestinian militant group has continued with shorter-range bombardment of areas closer to the Gaza Strip.

On Wednesday, four rockets were fired from Lebanon toward the Lower Galilee and other towns in northern Israel, according to the Israeli army. Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile system intercepted one of the rockets, while the rest probably fell in open areas, the Israeli army reported. Following the incident, Haifa, Acre and several other towns in northern Israel opened their public bomb shelters.

No injuries or damage were reported. The Israeli army struck targets in Lebanon as it continued to investigate into the afternoon. No organization has publicly claimed responsibility for the incident.

Israeli jets continued airstrikes on Gaza. The Israel Defense Forces later said 52 warplanes had dropped about 120 munitions on approximately 40 underground Hamas targets in Rafah, near the Egyptian border, and Khan Younis, the Palestinian enclave’s second-largest city, in an attack that lasted 25 minutes. It said it killed three Hamas combatants hiding in an apartment next to a kindergarten in Gaza City.

In the past day, the death toll in Gaza rose to 228, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, including 64 children and 38 women. Among those killed in Gaza was a reporter for the Hamas-run al-Aqsa radio station, according to the station.

In a televised speech Wednesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of carrying out “organized state terrorism and war crimes” in Gaza that are punishable under international law.

Who are Hamas’s political leaders, and how is Israel targeting them?

Since the conflict began May 10, about 4,000 rockets have been fired from Gaza at Israel, with at least 600 of them landing short, according to the Israeli military. Israel says its Iron Dome defense system has intercepted about 90 percent of the rockets that have reached its airspace.

France circulated a draft cease-fire resolution to U.N. Security Council members on Tuesday, Axios reported.

The draft is based on the Biden administration’s own recent public statements, making it more difficult for the United States to veto the resolution, it said. The United States has blocked three previous draft statements on Gaza at the council, saying that a statement would get in the way of behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

“The shooting must stop,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a statement after speaking with the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, who he said were in agreement. “The time has come for a cease-fire.”

That position prompted the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations on Tuesday to challenge the Biden administration to show results.

“If the Biden administration can exert all of their pressure to bring an end to the aggression against our people, nobody is going to stand in their way,” Riyad Mansour said, according to the Associated Press.

The U.S. Mission at the United Nations indicated on Wednesday evening that it would not support the French draft resolution. “We’ve been clear and consistent that we are focused on intensive diplomatic efforts underway to bring an end to the violence and that we will not support actions that we believe undermine efforts to de-escalate,” a spokesperson said, according to Reuters.

There were signs of the growing strain on Biden during his visit Tuesday to Dearborn, Mich., where more than 1,000 people gathered a few miles from the auto plant and booed at mentions of the president’s name.

He was met on the tarmac by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the first Palestinian American woman to serve in Congress. She has publicly pushed the president to back a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire. Tlaib, whose grandmother lives in the West Bank, could be seen in animated conversation with Biden.

Hazem Balousha in Gaza City contributed to this report.