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Biden intensifies diplomatic effort to contain Gaza conflict

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Joe Biden ramped up diplomatic efforts to prevent Israel’s anticipated ground assault on Gaza from spiralling into a regional conflagration, telling the country’s prime minister he must follow the rules of war and warning other regional powers not to exploit the situation.

The US president’s push came even as he delivered an emotional address to Jewish community leaders at the White House, where he called Saturday’s Hamas attack on southern Israel “a campaign of pure cruelty against the Jewish people” and vowed to supply Israel with all weaponry it might need. 

Still, Biden’s daylong efforts on Wednesday, which included calls to several leaders in the Middle East, appeared aimed at winning assurances from US allies and foes that they show restraint in the coming days, a sign of growing concerns in Washington that the Israel-Hamas war could destabilise the wider region.

Biden said that he urged Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “operate by the rules of war” in any retaliation against Hamas. He also spoke to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the influential leader of the United Arab Emirates, and warned against “anyone who might seek to exploit the current situation”, the White House said in a readout of the call. 

In his remarks at the White House, he also sent a more explicit warning to Tehran, saying he had moved the USS Gerald R Ford aircraft carrier group to the eastern Mediterranean and was sending additional fighter jets as part of an effort to make it “clear to the Iranians: Be careful”.

John Kirby, the US National Security Council spokesman, said the Pentagon was also sending the USS Dwight Eisenhower aircraft carrier and accompanying warships to the Mediterranean on a planned deployment as an “an invaluable asset if needed”.

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, departed for Israel on Wednesday in a show of solidarity with the Jewish state, saying “significant military assistance requested by Israel is on the way”. But like the president, he reiterated that his trip was intended to send a message of restraint to others in the region.

“We will be reiterating, reaffirming the very strong message president Biden has delivered to any country or any party that might try to take advantage of the situation,” Blinken said before departing. “And that message is: Don’t.”

Biden’s efforts came even as the new unity government in Israel tightened its quarantine of Gaza and vowed to mobilise the entire country for its fight against Hamas.

Israel-Hamas war

As part of US efforts, Kirby said the administration was in discussions with Israel and Egypt about creating a humanitarian “safe passage” corridor for civilians in Gaza caught up in the conflict.

“We support safe passage for civilians,” Kirby said at a White House press briefing. “Civilians are protected under the laws of armed conflict and they should be given every opportunity to avoid the fighting.”

Kirby, whose comments on safe passage have been echoed by Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, also said the Pentagon would provide more military assistance to Israel “in coming days”.

Biden said he had not “given up hope” for the safe return of the more than a dozen Americans taken hostage by Hamas.

“Folks, there’s a lot we’re doing . . . I have not given up hope of bringing these folks home,” he said, adding that he could not give specific details.

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