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Biden Administration Urges Israelis And Palestinians To De-Escalate Violence

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is intensifying. Three women in Israel were killed by Hamas rocket fire on their apartment blocks today, among hundreds of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, Israel continues its airstrikes on Gaza, which have killed at least 30 people and brought down an apartment building there. As the escalation continues, some say the U.S. needs to do more to help resolve the conflict. The Biden administration wants to focus on other foreign policy priorities. But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the Middle East has a way of drawing the U.S. back in.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The Biden administration was trying to tread lightly in the Middle East. It has taken some small steps to rebuild relations with the Palestinians, restoring aid that was cut by the Trump administration. But former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer says the U.S. needs to get more involved.

DANIEL KURTZER: The administration has studiously avoided dealing with almost any aspect of this issue other than trying to correct some of the most egregious mistakes of the Trump administration. What the violence on the ground and the escalation tells us is that the conflict is not going to give the administration a vacation.

KELEMEN: Now at Princeton University, Kurtzer says the U.S. needs to be tougher with Israel to stop it from carrying out planned evictions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem. That is one of the issues that is raising tensions now. Kurtzer says the U.S. should also press Israel to crack down on ultranationalist Jewish groups that have been roaming the streets, chanting anti-Arab slogans and provoking fights with Palestinians.

KURTZER: In other words, the Israelis have to hear from us, as Hamas and the Palestinians need to hear from those who have some sway with them, that we're not simply going to turn the cheek and allow this to go on when our own interests are at stake.

KELEMEN: One interest is making sure Israel remains a democracy. Another is allowing the U.S. to focus on many other global threats. Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace worries that the Biden administration is just not staffed up yet to deal with this crisis.

MICHELE DUNNE: They didn't want to appoint a special envoy for Israel-Palestine, which most administrations in the past have done. And they don't even have yet a new U.S. ambassador to Israel or consul general working with the Palestinians.

KELEMEN: Dunne says this may be a sign that the Biden administration wants to focus elsewhere. But the U.S.-Israel alliance is the biggest bilateral military relationship in the world.

DUNNE: And we've seen some on the more progressive side of the Democratic Party in Congress already pressing the administration, saying, well, you said you wanted to make human rights an important part of your foreign policy. Where is that now? And we see that, you know, the Biden administration just clearly hasn't thought this through yet.

KELEMEN: State Department spokesperson Ned Price says the U.S. is doing what it can to calm tensions and sending clear messages to both sides.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NED PRICE: Israel has a right to self-defense. And we also recognize that the Palestinian people need to be able to live in safety and security just as Israelis do.

KELEMEN: He wouldn't say whether the U.S. thinks Israeli airstrikes in Gaza are proportional but says any loss of civilian life is, quote, "deeply lamentable." The White House says President Biden is getting daily briefings on the situation.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUTEMATH SONG, "YOU ARE MINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.