GAZA CITY—The U.S. and allies in the Mideast mounted a weekend diplomatic thrust to temper hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians, an effort that had scant effect as airstrikes, missile launches and street violence continued to grip the region.
As a U.S. envoy held talks in Jerusalem, President Biden spoke Saturday with both Israeli Prime Minister
and Palestinian Authority President
Mr. Biden, urging de-escalation, reiterated his support for Israel’s right to defend itself and voiced concern about the deaths of civilians, including children, and the safety of journalists.
The U.S. also sought to work through diplomatic channels it opened in Cairo and Doha, Qatar, urging that intermediaries communicate to Hamas, which rules the Gaza strip, that it should unequivocally cease hostilities.
The U.S. message to Hamas, through Israel’s neighbors, is that rocket attacks must stop. “There isn’t a negotiating play here,” said a Western official familiar with the matter.
The U.S. doesn’t have direct contact with Hamas, which is designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. A small group of senior Egyptian officials are seen as the key to persuading Hamas to comply as part of a potential truce, the Western official added.
Israel has publicly rejected a cease-fire, while Hamas leaders have sent mixed signals. As the U.S. urged steps to de-escalate quickly, Israel on Saturday disclosed plans to step up its offensive to shut down permanently the ability of Hamas to fire rockets at Israeli targets.
Among other diplomatic steps, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke Saturday with his Israeli counterpart, Defense Minister
On Sunday, more countries will add their voice to the bitter conflict when the United Nations Security Council holds an emergency meeting to address the violence.
Israeli airstrikes on Saturday destroyed targets that included a high-rise building in Gaza housing the offices of several international media outlets, including the Associated Press and Al Jazeera. Hamas, meanwhile, fired scores more rockets targeting Tel Aviv and other areas in Israel.
The U.S. envoy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State
has been in Israel since Friday, and held talks Saturday. Secretary of State
was scheduled to leave Sunday for a trip to Denmark, Iceland and Greenland.
The U.S. bid for de-escalation marks a test of the Biden administration’s influence in the region. The U.S. diplomatic push contrasted with the first months of the Biden administration, when officials didn’t move quickly to become involved in the longstanding conflict, seeing the Israelis and Palestinians as far apart.
As hostilities first erupted into military confrontation, U.S. lawmakers and some former officials pressed for a more stringent administration response. Mr. Biden and his aides also came under pressure from political allies as seeming to favor one side or the other.
The Mideast fighting is the most intense since the most recent of three wars, in 2014. It began with Palestinian protests over the possible forced removal of residents from homes that are also claimed by Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem. Israeli police stormed a mosque during a crackdown on protesters, who threw stones and aimed fireworks back. Hamas then fired a salvo of rockets into Israel.
At least 145 Gazans have been killed since the escalation began Monday, including 41 children, the Gaza health ministry said.
As the fighting intensifies, violence has spread within Israel’s borders and in the occupied West Bank.
At least 11 people were killed Friday as Israeli forces fired on Palestinians who were protesting across the West Bank against Israel’s shelling of Gaza, according to the Palestinian Authority’s health ministry. Israel’s military described the protests as violent and said Palestinians had attempted to harm Israeli civilians.
Hamas, which has sought to gain prominence in the West Bank, urged Palestinians in the occupied territory and Arabs in Israel to continue their confrontations with Israelis. The Fatah Party of Mr. Abbas on Saturday also called on Palestinians in the West Bank to confront Israeli forces.
As Hamas launches missile salvos into Israel, at least 11 Israelis have died, including one man killed Saturday by a rocket that landed in the Tel Aviv suburb Ramat Gan, according to the military.
Israeli military officials said their aim isn’t a return to the status quo of sporadic rocket attacks from Gaza and limited Israeli military action in response. Instead, they want Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel permanently.
To meet this goal, according to military officials, Israel is targeting tunnels that Hamas operatives use to move around underground, missile launchers, military infrastructure, command and control posts, and senior leaders.
“We are in the middle of very intense operations,” a senior Israeli air force general said. “We want to change the way Hamas calculates firing rockets at Israeli cities and citizens.”
After the decision to fire rockets toward Jerusalem, which military officials had caught Israel by surprise, Israel decided to press plans to reach a new strategic equation.
“We want to get to a place where Hamas wakes up in the morning and does not have any weapons—zero,” the general said. “We are trying to coerce Hamas to put the lid back on their decision-making.”
Mr. Netanyahu told Mr. Biden in a phone call Saturday that Israel was doing all it could to prevent civilian casualties when striking high-rise buildings in Gaza, according to a statement from his office. Saturday was the second time Messrs. Biden and Netanyahu had spoken in the past three days.
Mr. Netanyahu, in a separate speech Saturday night defended the downing of the high-rise building, repeated the claim that it was used by Hamas’s military intelligence. He said the current operation would continue “for as long as necessary” to deter Hamas from attacking Israel again.
Israel’s military said that the high-rise building was used by Hamas’s military intelligence services, and that Israel’s jet fighters targeted it after warning residents to evacuate. Representatives for Israel’s military and Hamas didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
“We are shocked and horrified,” AP President and Chief Executive Gary Pruitt said. “We narrowly avoided a terrible loss of life.”
He called on Israel to provide evidence that Hamas was active within the building and said in 15 years the AP had seen no evidence to support that claim. Mr. Pruitt added that a dozen AP journalists and freelancers were inside the building and that all were evacuated. “The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza today because of what happened,” Mr. Pruitt said.
Wael Al-Dahdouh, a correspondent for Al Jazeera who worked in the building, said he had just a half-hour to gather his things before scrambling to get out.
“The stairs were like an ant farm,” he said. “We carried only the essentials of our equipment. Then two reconnaissance missiles followed by three explosive missiles made the building a thing of the past.”
White House press secretary
said Washington had told the Israeli government that the safety of journalists was a paramount responsibility.
—Jared Malsin and William Mauldin contributed to this article.
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