Biden hails Israel-Hamas cease-fire, sees ‘opportunity’

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Thursday hailed the impending cease-fire in the fighting between Israel and Hamas, saying he sees a “genuine opportunity” toward the larger goal of building a lasting peace in the Middle East.

Biden credited the Egyptian government with playing a crucial role in brokering the cease-fire and said he and top White House aides were intensely involved in an “hour by hour” effort to stop the bloodletting.

“I believe the Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity and democracy,” Biden said. “My administration will continue our quiet, relentless diplomacy toward that.”

The president spoke soon after Israel and Hamas announced a cease-fire would go into effect at 2 a.m. Friday, ending an 11-day war that caused widespread destruction in the Gaza Strip and brought life in much of Israel to a halt. The fighting killed at least 227 in Gaza and 12 in Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said Israel accepted the Egyptian proposal after a late-night meeting of his Security Cabinet. Hamas quickly followed suit and said it would honor the deal.

The cease-fire was announced one day after Biden told Netanyahu in a telephone call that he expected “significant de-escalation” of the fighting by day’s end, according to the White House. But the prime minister came right back with a public declaration that he was “determined to continue” the Gaza operation “until its objective is achieved.”

The agreement would close the heaviest round of fighting between the bitter enemies since a 50-day war in 2014, and once again there was no clear winner. Israel inflicted heavy damage on Hamas but was unable to prevent the rocket fire that has disrupted life for millions of Israelis for more than a decade.

The fighting began May 10, when Hamas militants in Gaza fired long-range rockets toward Jerusalem after days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a flashpoint site that is known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount. Heavy-handed police tactics at the compound and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers had inflamed tensions.

Israel launched hundreds of airstrikes during the operation, targeting what it said was Hamas’ military infrastructure, including a vast tunnel network. Hamas and other militant groups embedded in residential areas fired over 4,000 rockets at Israeli cities, with hundreds falling short and most of the rest intercepted.

At least 230 Palestinians were killed, including 65 children and 39 women, with 1,710 people wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not break the numbers down into fighters and civilians.

Palestinians inspect damage to buildings in Gaza City on May 20, 2021 in Gaza City, Gaza. Civilian casualties continue to rise as Israel-Gaza violence entered a tenth day. More than 220 people in Gaza and twelve people in Israel have been killed as cross-border rocket exchanges continue. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to continue the bombing campaign despite increasing calls from the United Nations and the international community to end the conflict. The conflict which erupted May 10, comes after weeks of rising Israeli-Palestinian tension in East Jerusalem, which peaked with violent clashes inside the holy site of Al-Aqsa Mosque. (Photo by Fatima Shbair/Getty Images)

Hamas and the militant group Islamic Jihad said at least 20 of their fighters were killed, while Israel said the number was at least 130. Some 58,000 Palestinians have fled their homes, many of them seeking shelter in crowded U.N. schools at a time of a raging coronavirus outbreak.

Twelve people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy, a 16-year-old girl and a soldier, were also killed.

Since the fighting began, Gaza’s infrastructure, already weakened by a 14-year blockade, has rapidly deteriorated.

Medical supplies, water and fuel for electricity are running low in the territory, on which Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade after Hamas seized power in 2007.

Israel considers Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seeks its destruction, to be a terrorist group and Hamas’ government is not internationally recognized.

Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, in Gaza City, Thursday, May 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

Israeli bombing has damaged over 50 schools across the territory, according to advocacy group Save the Children, completely destroying at least six. While repairs are done, education will be disrupted for nearly 42,000 children.

Israeli attacks have also 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.

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