WASHINGTON/LONDON (REUTERS, AFP, XINHUA) - US President Joe Biden on Thursday (May 20) pledged humanitarian and reconstruction aid for Gaza as he hailed a deal to end 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas in which he was criticised by fellow Democrats for not speaking out more forcefully against Israeli actions.
Biden, appearing briefly at the White House after news of the ceasefire agreement, also promised to replenish Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system, despite complaints from the Democratic left about a pending US arms sale to Israel.
Britain also welcomed the ceasefire and called on all sides to work to make it durable and "end the unacceptable cycle of violence" in the region.
"All sides must work to make the ceasefire durable and end the unacceptable cycle of violence and loss of civilian life," UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Twitter, adding that Britain supports "efforts to bring about peace".
The US State Department said that Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken planned to travel to the Middle East, where he would meet with Israeli, Palestinian, and regional leaders to discuss recovery efforts.
Biden said the United States would work through the United Nations and other international stakeholders "to provide rapid humanitarian assistance and to marshal international support for the people in Gaza and in the Gaza reconstruction efforts."
He insisted that reconstruction aid would be provided in partnership with the Palestinian Authority and not with Hamas, which the United States labels a terrorist organisation.
The Palestinian Authority, which is run by moderate President Mahmoud Abbas, only governs parts of the occupied West Bank, however, while Hamas holds sway in the Gaza Strip.
"We will do this in full partnership with the Palestinian Authority - not Hamas - in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal," Biden said.
United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday welcomed the ceasefire agreement and extended his deepest condolences to the victims of the violence.
"I commend Egypt and Qatar for the efforts carried out, in close coordination with the UN, to help restore calm to Gaza and Israel," he said while calling on all sides to observe the ceasefire.
Guterres said it was essential for the wider international community to work with the UN, and develop "an integrated, robust package of support for a swift, sustainable reconstruction and recovery, that supports the Palestinian people and strengthens their institutions."
Describing Gaza as an "integral part of the future Palestinian state," he said no effort should be spared to bring about "real national reconciliation that ends the division."
He also underscored the UN's commitment to working with Israelis and Palestinians, and with international partners, "to return to the path of meaningful negotiations" and allow for the realisation of a two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 lines, UN resolutions, international law and mutual agreements."
Welcoming the ceasefire, European Council President Charles Michel called on all parties to seize the opportunity to achieve peace.
"Welcome announced ceasefire between Israel and Hamas ending the 11-day conflict. Opportunity for peace and security for citizens must be seized," Michel tweeted late Thursday.
The ceasefire agreement followed days of intense diplomatic activity that provided a test of the ability of Biden and his top national security aides to help resolve a conflict that could have spiralled into a prolonged war.
During the negotiations, Biden spoke to two leaders with whom he has had tense relations - six times with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, including twice on Thursday, and once with Egyptian President Abel Fattah al-Sisi.
Both Netanyahu and Sisi were close to Biden's Republican predecessor, Donald Trump. Biden waited weeks to call Netanyahu after taking office in what Israel viewed as a snub.
His phone call with Sisi on Thursday was the first time they had spoken since Biden took office in January.
Egypt, which has a peace treaty and diplomatic relations with Israel and also maintains contacts with Hamas, has traditionally played a key role in quelling Gaza fighting.
The absence until now of direct communication between the two presidents had been widely seen as a snub of Sisi by a new administration that has made clear its concerns about Egypt's human rights record.
From caution to pressure
When the conflict began, the administration was cautious not to make public demands of Israel out of concern Israelis would ignore US appeals and prolong the conflict, a source familiar with the behind-the-scenes negotiations said.
The United States got a sense five or six days ago that Israel was prepared to begin a wind-down phase after destroying much of the Hamas targets it had set out to hit, the source said.
At that point, senior US officials from Biden on down began pressing Israel more strongly for a de-escalation and a ceasefire, the source said.
On Thursday, Israel signalled to Biden officials a readiness for a ceasefire, the source said. The United States informed Egypt, which told Hamas.
The Islamist militant group then informed Egypt of its readiness for a ceasefire, and Egypt informed the United States.
The main interlocutor for Egypt was Cairo's intelligence chief, the source said.
Whether the truce would hold was a major concern, with the United States not making any guarantees given fears of more random rocket attacks and other tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, the source said.
The Hamas rocket attacks followed Israeli security police clashes with worshippers at al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and a court case by Israeli settlers to evict Palestinians from a neighbourhood in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.
If the evictions go ahead, the source said, that could become a new flashpoint, so US officials are discussing the matter with the Israelis.
Biden's public backing of Israel's right to self-defence against Hamas rocket attacks prompted criticism from fellow Democrats that he needed a more balanced approach instead of marching in lockstep with Israel.
In his remarks, Biden defended his approach to handling the crisis but gave a nod to his critics, saying Palestinians deserve to live in peace and security just like Israelis.
"My administration will continue our quiet, relentless diplomacy toward that end. I believe we have a genuine opportunity to make progress and I am committed to working for it," he said.
With some critics pointing to Biden's lack of high-level representation on the ground, the source made clear that the selection of a new US ambassador to Israel was nearing an end.
Thomas Nides, a former State Department official who is currently a Morgan Stanley executive, and Robert Wexler, a former Democratic lawmaker with extensive Middle East experience, are the front-runners, a US official told Reuters recently.
The Axios news website reported on Thursday that Biden was leaning toward picking Nides, citing a source familiar with the process.