By Steve Herman
U.S. President Joe Biden said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu informed him Thursday that Israel “has agreed to a mutual, unconditional cease-fire” with the Hamas militant group.
The truce, scheduled to begin at 2 a.m. local time Friday (2300 GMT), would return an uneasy calm to Israel and to Gaza.
Hamas has fired rockets at Israeli cities from Gaza since May 10, for what it said were rights abuses committed by Israel against Palestinians in Jerusalem.
Israel had retaliated with targeted artillery and airstrikes on leaders of Hamas and the group’s infrastructure. The Israelis had faced international condemnation for blowing up high-rise buildings and striking refugee camps and other targets, which caused extensive civilian casualties.
“We held intensive high-level discussions, hour by hour, literally,” said Biden of what he called U.S. “quiet diplomacy” to reach an agreement.
The U.S. president said he had spoken with Netanyahu six times over the past 11 days as part of his administration’s diplomatic efforts behind the scenes to achieve a halt in the hostilities.
Biden said he also spoke Thursday with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
“I extend my sincere gratitude to President el-Sissi and the senior Egyptian officials who played such a critical role in this diplomacy,” Biden said during televised remarks from the White House that lasted four minutes.
The Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank, and other Middle Eastern countries were also involved in the discussions, according to Biden.
“These hostilities have resulted in the tragic deaths of so many civilians, including children, and I send my sincere condolences to all the families, Israeli and Palestinian, who have lost loved ones, and my hope for a full recovery for the wounded,” the president said.
Biden said he had spoken with Netanyahu again Thursday and commended him “for the decision to bring the current hostilities to a close within less than 11 days. I also emphasized what I’ve said throughout this conflict — the United States fully supports Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks from Hamas and other Gaza-based terrorist groups that have taken the lives of innocent civilians in Israel.”
Biden said he also promised the Israeli leader that the United States would replenish Israel’s Iron Dome rocket interception system.
The death toll from the 11 days of fighting stands at 230 in Gaza, including 65 children, according to local health officials there, and 12 in Israel, its authorities said.
The United Nations says more than 72,000 Palestinians have been displaced in Gaza.
The two sides continued to trade blows before the cease-fire, with Israeli air sirens warning of incoming Hamas rockets, and an airstrike in Gaza heard by a Reuters reporter.
Earlier, at the U.N., Israel’s ambassador said his government wanted a cease-fire “but only after significantly degrading Hamas’ terror machine.”
“This is not a war between Israel and the people of Gaza,” Ambassador Gilad Erdan said. “This is not a war between Israel and the Palestinians. This is a war only between Israel and Hamas. We will never apologize for defending our citizens, even if some countries here might be happy to see a greater number of dead Jews.”
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told reporters at the U.N., where he participated in a meeting on the situation, that “the carnage, the aggression, the attack, will stop. It is good that the Palestinian people, the more than 2 million of them (in Gaza), will be able to go to sleep tonight knowing that they will have a brighter tomorrow. But that’s not enough, that’s not enough at all.”
The Palestinian foreign minister said the issues that triggered this latest round of violence — the situation for Muslims at their holy sites in Jerusalem and the evictions of Palestinian families in parts of the city — must be addressed.
The Biden administration had blocked efforts at the U.N. Security Council to issue a condemnation of the fighting and call for a truce, drawing criticism from some countries. All 15 council members must agree on such statements.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had reiterated his call for an immediate cease-fire, saying it was urgent that hostilities were de-escalated to prevent an “uncontainable cross-border security and humanitarian crisis.”
As the diplomats talked, there was more cross-border firing early Thursday. Israeli airstrikes hit Gaza City and the towns of Deir al-Balah and Khan Younis.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas traveled to the region Thursday to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials. He called the visit “a sign of solidarity with the people on both sides who fear for their lives day and night, as Israel must defend itself against Hamas’ rocket terror.”
Biden, in his Thursday remarks, said his administration “will continue our quiet, relentless diplomacy” to work toward a lasting peace in the region.
In the near term, Biden said the United States is committed to work with the United Nations and other international stakeholders to provide rapid humanitarian assistance support for the people of Gaza, as well as reconstruction efforts.
This will be done in full partnership with the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas, which controls Gaza “in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal,” Biden said.